The United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Yet on an average night, over half a million homeless folks are sleeping on the street or in shelters. One can see this most conspicuously in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle — cities where the majority of the nation’s unsheltered homeless folks reside.
Being unsheltered means someone lives in a tent, a vehicle, or without cover. Roughly one-third of our homeless population is unsheltered. While New York City has over 75,000 homeless people alone, about 3,750 people (or 5%) are unsheltered. That’s a lot of people living on the streets, especially during the winter months when temperatures can quickly dip below freezing for weeks at a time. HUD (the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) estimates that nearly 25% of all homeless folks struggle with severe mental illness and 45% are dealing with moderate mental illness.
The history of people with mental illness ending up on the streets goes back hundreds of years, but it truly became a crisis when the federal government began to defund mental health institutions in the 1940’s. It took almost 30 years of mismanagement and the redirecting of funds for the country to completely defund mental health support for those who need it most. By the 70’s, a majority of people who were within mental institutions were required to fend for themselves and many became homeless. The trend has continued for the last 50 years, and without proper support, our nation will continue to struggle with a growing homeless population.
While collecting data on homelessness is a relatively new phenomenon, HUD only began collecting data in 2007, and the problem has exploded in recent years. The Great Recession brought on by the crash of the housing market saw thousands of people lose their homes due to subprime mortgage loans. Many suddenly owed more than their house was worth, causing them to default over time and lose everything they put into their most significant investment. While the banks got bailed out by the federal government, very few ordinary citizens did, many of whom became homeless seemingly overnight. That, paired with a massive increase in overall rental prices over the last 20 years and wage stagnation, has created a significant squeeze on millions of Americans.
In fact, in just two decades, the average rental price in America for a one-bedroom apartment has gone up 220%!
In 2017 nearly 7 million households in America spent more than 50% of their income on rent. (That’s up 17% from 2007.) Considering annual inflation rates over that time are about 2.3%, the real problem appears when we look at the wages of working-class Americans. Low wage workers, who are those most likely to face eviction and become homeless, have seen significant stagnation in their salaries for the past 50 years. If you work full time at minimum wage after taxes, you will take home $13,713. That doesn’t even cover the average American monthly rent of $1,420 — let alone everything else one needs to survive like transportation, food, medicine, utilities, etc. With numbers like these, it’s no wonder that hundreds of thousands of Americans are homeless. Once people become homeless, a cascade of difficulties is not far behind. It’s much easier to lose a job, possessions, and access to essential resources like a shower, the ability to cook and preserve food, and other things most of us take for granted.
The burden of solving the epidemic of homelessness in America falls on the shoulders of municipalities. Many cities around the country are flailing while trying to organize several different organizations to find and implement solutions. While affordable housing shortages are everywhere, several cities like Columbus, Ohio have focused on the “housing first” model with marked success. This means getting the chronically homeless into private homes without expecting issues like addiction, mental health problems, or joblessness to be a prerequisite to access. Once a person’s housing stabilizes, tackling other issues becomes easier. Most of these programs offer rent subsidies for a year or two to help people get back on their feet with the idea that they will be able to secure more traditional housing after that period. The challenge then comes when someone who has stabilized and secured a minimum wage job still can’t cover the rent once the subsidies are over. The “housing first” model seems to be the most successful approach to date, but it’s not flawless.
The real issue is that municipalities can’t produce enough long term affordable housing fast enough for our lowest earners.
Even with Los Angeles’ budget of $1.2 billion to solve the homeless crisis, people are falling into homelessness faster than the city can produce housing. The city housed 21,631 people in 2018, but the chronically homeless tally actually went up 17%! To do it right, cities have to attack the issue from several angles. They need to prevent people from falling into homelessness by increasing tenants’ rights, passing laws to criminalize rent gouging, and providing effective support for those struggling with mental illness. They need to build several types of low-income housing in various areas of the city. Short term housing like tiny houses can be constructed if cities make an effort to find lots, rezone them, find architects or planners to design the site, and secure funding. Also, cities must build permanent low-income housing in mixed-income buildings and neighborhoods.
However, NIMBYism is real, and the wealthy have the power to push back on these types of policies. But the fact is that mixed income communities have seen success in combating classism, racism, and regularly see higher rates of emotional wellbeing in community members.
Ultimately, our cities need to recognize that homelessness is a symptom of wealth disparity, a weak education system, a severe lack of access for mental health support, low wages, and a consequential lack of affordable housing. Until these issues are adequately addressed, the debilitating symptoms of homelessness will continue to become exacerbated. We, as a nation, must address the root of the problem while cities simultaneously must work to eliminate homelessness.
Want to help? Seek out organizations and nonprofits in your area that are supporting the homeless community. Choose to volunteer at a shelter, Habitat for Humanity, or other groups that build homes for those in need.
Ann Lewis is an artist, activist, and writer based in Detroit. Her artwork reflects upon social and environmental justice issues.