Who typically experiences homelessness?
Those without permanent, stable housing are single men and women, families, and children; they span the demographics of our country. In 2013, 46.2 million people were in poverty, up from 39.8 million in 2009. As of 2013, families with children comprised 33% of the homeless, with proportions higher in rural areas.
Families with children are averaging 6-12 months in shelters before any other housing is found. Two-thirds of the single homeless are male of every race, and comprise three-quarters of all homeless.
Nationally, nearly half of all women and children experiencing homelessness have fled from domestic violence, and this number has remained consistent for more than a decade. Homelessness is increasing among seniors because income/savings can’t keep up with the cost of housing.
What can we do to decrease homelessness?
We solve homelessness with a range of housing options and supportive service models. These are evidenced-based solutions to ending homelessness, and if we can coordinate and prioritize available resources as a community, we can align programs and services to decrease the incidences of homelessness.
Community best practices for addressing homelessness begins with creating a strategic plan to develop a range of housing options; from emergency and rapid rehousing to transitional programs and permanent supportive housing.
Shelters are also important as they provide an immediate option for safe shelter while housing is being located. In communities that do not have adequate shelter options it is becoming more common to see camping; both in cars, on the streets, in public parks and in forested areas.
Providing organized encampments is recognized as a better alternative than scattered site camping as services can be provided and managed camps enhance the camper’s safety.
Communities also need a wide range of services including employment programs, benefit navigation, behavioral health services, and substance abuse treatment programs.
But if we provide better services won’t it attract more people experiencing homelessness here?
Conditions in our own communities create and sustain homelessness. It is easy to claim that persons experiencing homelessness are “outsiders.” And while some persons who are homeless move around to find jobs and housing, many are hesitant to leave their own familiar communities, are unable to move because of physical or mental difficulties, or do not have the financial means to relocate for job opportunities.
Many individuals experiencing homelessness have disabilities and live on fixed incomes that cannot compete with housing costs. Persons experiencing homelessness seek safe and affordable housing just as we do, and maintain the same freedoms we all share in being able to seek better opportunities.
The issue of homelessness is insurmountable, why bother?
Evidence from other communities across the country suggests otherwise. There is a growing national consensus that homelessness can be solved with the right plan, the right approach, and enough funding.
As encouraged by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, many communities have enacted community-based plans to prevent and end homelessness, which identifies strategies, and desired outcomes to end homelessness instead of “managing” it.
Ending a complex problem like homelessness requires a commitment from all members of our community: government officials, philanthropies, faith and civic groups, businesses including small business owners, housing and service providers, and concerned individuals.
Through developing a community plan we take the first critical steps to ending homelessness for our most vulnerable neighbors.
Not all persons experiencing homelessness deserve services, right?
Everyone desires access to housing and services; and its’ easier to advocate for them when we understand and share the notion that homelessness can truly happen to anyone. Government policy affects homelessness more than any other factor.
All of the following elements are policy decisions that can decrease homelessness: building more single room occupancy (SRO) and low-income housing units; raising the minimum wage; increasing the number of affordable day-care centers for low-income children; providing enough municipal emergency shelters; and allowing congregations and other non-governmental organizations to provide shelters without restrictive regulations.
Anyone can become homeless if they are forced into unemployment with no financial cushion, or must immediately leave a domestic violence situation, or are laid off with no unemployment insurance, or fall ill or become injured and can’t qualify for disability, or become incapacitated due to mental illness. Being without a home is a condition, not a character flaw.
Don’t Some People Choose to Be Homeless?
A life without a home is not a comfortable one. Few would choose a lifestyle that is unhealthy, humiliating, dangerous and invites the abuse that people on the streets receive while unsheltered.
Some people experiencing homelessness choose to sleep on the streets rather than in shelters because they have trauma that necessitates that they be away from crowds of people. Others do not qualify for shelter services for a variety of reasons. Very few would choose the streets over a residence they could call home.
Persons experiencing homeless are alcoholics or drug addicts; they refuse to stop and can’t be helped right?
Estimates are about one-quarter to one-third of the homeless population are or have been substance abusers or addicts. Many are dually diagnosed, which means that they suffer from mental illness as well, making it harder for them to cope with their addictions.
If they have become homeless due to factors other than addiction, they may turn to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of their lives, just as the housed do. Without access to medication to assist with their mental illness, many will turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate.
However, because they usually live their lives in public, they cannot hide their addictions, as those with housing can do. Those with substance abuse issues must be housed first to effectively address their addiction issues and minimize impacts on those around them.
Leaving those with addictions to languish on our streets negatively impacts the larger community.
Housing First is a nationally recognized program intervention that says if you provide persons with housing first, and wrap the tenant with support services, even those who have been experiencing homelessness for decades (termed the chronically homeless) can remain housed and lead healthier lives.
Housing First is delivered through the provision of supportive housing – a model that provides affordable apartments accompanied with robust behavioral health services.
These models were developed over 25 years ago in New York City and are now recognized nationally as the best practice for the hardest to serve. The best part of this model is that supportive housing programs cost between $9,000 and $12,000 a year per person.
Conversely, many persons experiencing homelessness use jails, emergency systems, detox programs and outpatient services and can cost a community between $26,000-$35,000 a year. Maintaining someone’s homeless status cost communities much more than housing and serving them.