Homelessness Both Occasional and Chronic

Homelessness affects many women, an increasing number of children, and many veterans (more than 67,000 in the "point in time" count in January, 2011, with results just released in December, 2011).

It's not just a problem of the stereotypical chronically unemployed male. The root cause of homelessness is poverty, although each person has a unique story. Sometimes people just have one or more financial setbacks that spiral out of control.

If your neighborhood, rural, urban, or suburban, contains some homeless people, learn more about effective measures that avoid stigmatizing the individual, while helping each to become independent again.



You might think you don't have any homeless people, but you'd be surprised to find individuals and entire encampments along rivers and streams, families living in their vehicles, veterans under bridges, and groups or loners camped out in parks.

In the U.S., the Department of Housing and Urban Development provides a number of programs for communities, and President Obama's goal is to end homelessness by 2015. I hope it happens, but experience is telling me we're not on a pace to meet that goal.

At the neighborhood and community development level, you can't afford to ignore the problem. Talk about a negative image for your community.

Dimensions and Causes of Homelessness

Two trends have converged to cause the current homelessness problem in the U.S.

First, rental housing, or at least affordable rental housing, is in relatively short supply in many places. There is often a long waiting list (think in terms of years, not weeks) for public housing units.

Single men especially who were living on the margin financially could find refuge in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels or places such as YMCAs or YWCAs. Those resources have disappeared in most communities.

And in many cities the rental market is focused on young people who want luxury amenities, and older apartments that are torn down are not replaced with modestly priced housing.

Second, the poverty rate is on the rise, so about 15% of the U.S. population is estimated by the government to fall below the poverty line, compared to 11% in 2000.

Various estimates are that between 10% and 20% of the homeless population is employed, but minimum wage jobs don't pay for an apartment in many towns. Many employed homeless have only part-time work, and others frequently lose jobs because of lack of job-related or social skills.

Causes of homelessness are as diverse as human fingerprints. But five types of issues stand out:

1. Medical bills combined with lack of health insurance

2. Mental illness, which lowers employment opportunity and compounds the inability to take intelligent action on one's own behalf

3. Substance abuse leading to poverty, and then lack of ability to obtain effective treatment after becoming homeless

4. Domestic violence

5. Poor readjustment to civilian life by veterans, especially those who were disabled permanently or temporarily by war injuries.


Why It's Serious: Housing Is Essential to Household Stability

After working hard on low-income housing for several years, a friend once asked why I was so passionate about this issue. It all comes down to the fact that none of us function very successfully without a home base.

Think of the times in your life when you've moved from one residence to another. Were you your most alert, organized, well groomed, well behaved self during that week or two? Now magnify this by being homeless for five months or seven months, not uncommon experiences.

Not only is there no place to stow your stuff (the shopping cart with the garbage bag in it probably doesn't include a safe place for your resume and your diploma), but also you begin to face the new elements of fear for your safety, fear of negative confrontations with neighbors or law enforcement, and fear that your hiding place will be found out or occupied by others.

In some parts of the country, climate extremes compound the problem.

Some of you are thinking no one is homeless, because everyone can go to a shelter. That's not really so. In larger and colder cities, on some nights there aren't enough beds for the entire homeless population.

In major metro areas, shelters often limit the length of time one person can stay, and they often lock people out during the day. Shelters also may be infested with crime, lice, roaches, and bedbugs, not to mention of course loud and obnoxious drunks or mentally ill folk who sneaked in while acting normal.

The homeless also complain of weapons and various forms of intimidation, not to mention complete lack of privacy, in the shelters.

Like every human society, shelters have their own pecking order and their own informal norms of behavior, so people who can’t conform are left out (in the cold) again.


Preventing Homelessness

Prevention is the best program, with four essential elements:

1. Financial literacy being taught in schools and to adults as needed. While states are busy trying to reform predatory lending, maybe they should require a good simple-to-read chart about financial issues to be distributed along with the payday loan!

It's amazing to watch the reality television shows about people who are deeply in debt and don't even know the extent of their shortfall each month. Often these are well-educated younger people, so imagine what happens with less educated folks who are deep in denial, addiction, or mental illness.

2. Community retention and provision of affordable housing. A community has a moral obligation to fight to retain whatever affordable housing it has.

While the federal government theoretically doesn't allow public housing units to be destroyed without replacement, that doesn't seem to be enforced in many cities.

Public housing can go vacant for months because its environment is so scary that no one wants to move in, or simply because the units haven't been repaired since the last people trashed the last place when they were evicted.

But beyond public housing as such, a community can look for opportunities when obsolete motel types go out of business, college dorms or student housing become vacant, and so forth. Community development dollars should go toward refurbishing these facilities into decent if modest housing allowing short-term leases if need be.

3. Good information about housing opportunities. Major cities need housing hotlines for those who are having difficulty finding housing.

If you're marginal in income, you may not have as much access as more prosperous folks to telephones, newspapers, and transportation--the elements that middle-income people use to find housing.

In small towns, or even at the county government level in more rural parts of the country, social service agencies need to go out of their way to be competent in keeping track of available reasonably priced housing.

4. An extensive, friendly, and well-publicized network of solutions for people with mental health, substance abuse, social skills, and joblessness issues. With cuts in social service funding everywhere, it's being left to the faith-based and non-profit sectors to take up the slack.


Providing More Transitional Housing

Some homeless households are able to move into a conventional apartment or house.  Many single people especially have to take an interim step before they can move into a more permanent residence.



Sometimes you will  hear professionals talk about transitional housing. We want to talk about two types of housing that will be transitional for some but nearly permanent for those with the most severe situations.

Public housing retention and rapid turnover

While the federal government theoretically doesn't allow public housing units to be destroyed without replacement, that doesn't seem to be enforced in many cities.

Public housing can go vacant for months because its environment is so scary that no one wants to move in, or simply because the units haven't been repaired since the last people trashed the last place when they were evicted.

Inventive re-use of obsolete or vacant housing

Beyond public housing, a community can look for opportunities when obsolete motels go out of business, college dorms or student housing become vacant, and apartment complexes are no longer competitive.

Community development dollars should go toward refurbishing these facilities into decent if modest housing allowing short-term leases if need be.

Especially anything that still resembles an SRO downtown or on a prominent transit line should be rescued and rehabbed, concentrating on updating the electrical, heating, cooling, and ventilation systems.

Since the advent of microwaves and mini-fridges, a very livable single room can be devised. Make the rooms energy-efficient and well-repaired, allow occupants to choose their paint color, divide the smokers from the non-smokers without compromise, install any soundproofing possible, and provide good laundry facilities.

Most of all, an SRO needs what are called "supportive services." This means a social worker, or two or three, living on-site.

This is an ideal live-work situation for the social work graduate student or new grad. They can monitor for mental health needs, make sure people take their meds, make sure addictions and relapses are addressed, and teach life skills.

If the facility is large enough, a job coach could live on site as well. It might sound daunting, but it's do-able if a city has the will. Some people may never be able to advance beyond the SRO, but with support, they can live independently, stay off welfare, stay clean and sober, and support one another.

We should say that the SRO isn't the only possible architectural style that supportive housing could take. The point is to have something relatively inexpensive but large enough in scope that social, medical, or substance abuse workers could be regularly involved in the programming.

Ideally, a community also should provide an adequate number of well-run shelters with supportive daytime social service programs. The kids need to go to school (preferably continuing in the same school), and the preschoolers need enrichment while mom or dad is looking for a job, going to school, or getting their heads together.

There aren't many shelters that offer the comprehensive set of strategies that are needed to provide a base of temporary stability. Most shelters run on the principle of providing a bed at night and kicking people out in the morning.


Solutions for Chronic Homelessness

This is short and to the point: As a society we can't afford to ignore mental illness and addiction among poor people any more. (And mental illness and addiction will make you poor, unless you are extremely high income, part of the 1%.) It leads to too much crime and general disorder.

We have to treat these conditions aggressively, frequently, and for as long as possible. One of the issues is that we've become focused on "brief therapy" as a way to control costs, but most addicts and severely mentally ill people need occasional therapy and a support system, whether a 12-step group or a whole different philosophy, for a long time.

Things are just upside down; teenagers and young adults are taking one or more anti-depressant medications when their life isn't perfect yet, while we're unwilling as a society to invest in adults who are deeply dysfunctional.

Refer to our community mental health page to offer some ideas on how the community can foster better identification of people having problems and offer more effective programs. The community poverty page is helpful also.

In terms of addiction, we could begin with a broader education of children and youth about life coping skills, and then of adults. People need to be rewarded for starting to become self-aware enough to understand what drives them. And then they need straightforward and sufficiently rigorous rehab programs.

As a sidebar it's important to note that our policy as a society has been not to even try to heal addictions, unless people have money.

We lock people up if their dealing or using happens to end up right under our nose; otherwise we pretend it isn't happening.

Prison doesn't cure addictions; it incubates them. Let's quit the drug incarceration insanity and concentrate on treatment, teach coping skills, and set up ordinary life so it's not quite as stressful.


Systemic Solutions to End Homelessness

Long-term, the solution for homelessness requires increasing housing supply in affordable price ranges, in addition to dealing with the domestic violence, mental health, substance abuse, and financial illiteracy issues.

The asset building approach, creating programs for the poor to save money for their future through individual development acccounts (IDAs) or the equivalent, can be very important too.

We need to design more attractive affordable housing, learn sophisticated strategies for mixed-income-housing within our neighborhoods, and generally de-stigmatize accepting housing subsidies for a short time.

By the way, most us live in subsidized housing. I take my mortgage deduction on my income taxes; don’t you, if you live in the U.S.?

So get over your rant about subsidizing someone's housing. Housing is a basic human need, and your community has a moral responsibility to be inventive about helping to meet your share of that need.

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