After six years of decline, homelessness in the U.S. is on the rise, and lawmakers, private citizens, advocacy groups, and volunteers alike are scrambling to find solutions. In the September 2019 executive summary of their report, “The State of Homelessness in America,” the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers noted that more than half a million U.S. citizens are homeless on any given night. About 65% of those homeless individuals seek out sanctuary in homeless sheltered, while the other 35% are unsheltered, sleeping on sidewalks, under bridges, or in personal vehicles.
Further, nearly 50% of unsheltered homeless Americans are located in the state of California. In fact, the Golden State is home to four of the five cities with the country’s highest rates of unsheltered homelessness: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and Santa Rosa. Those cities have another common denominator besides a substantial homeless population — there is also a significant lack of affordable housing, and rent costs have skyrocketed in recent years.
According to many real estate experts, the lack of affordable housing is a leading factor in homelessness, particularly in metropolitan settings. In fact, a late 2018 Zillow study concluded that households who spend more than 32% of their paycheck on rent are statistically far more likely to experience homelessness. And as homeless populations across the U.S. continue to swell, the need for immediate, tangible solutions becomes increasingly apparent.
Breaking the Cycle of Poverty
Across the country, those who have never experienced homelessness often make unhelpful assumptions about the homeless population. In the minds of many middle- and upper-class Americans, homelessness is intrinsically linked to mental illness and/or drug addiction. And while those conditions are prominent within the homeless community, the reasons behind an individual’s or family’s lack of stable housing are typically much more complex.
The stigma against America’s impoverished and homeless populations is nothing new, and it can be nearly impossible for poor people to break out of the cycle of poverty. There are a multitude of core issues that contribute to poverty and homelessness, from limited education and employment opportunities to lack of income due to health issues. Those who grew up in poverty are also more likely to struggle to make ends meet through their adulthood, reports Fiscal Tiger.
Yet America’s current housing crisis affects more than just those in poverty. Unfortunately, rent costs are climbing across most of the U.S., as wages remain relatively stagnant. Many struggling young people are opting for shared living situations in order to keep a roof over their head, but that isn’t a viable option for everyone, especially families.
Homelessness and Co-existing Conditions
As previously mentioned, homelessness and mental illness often coexist, compounding the issue of securing affordable housing for those individuals. The combination of mental illness and homelessness often leads to dire issues and situations, including substance abuse and chronic unemployment. And those individuals are often left behind when it comes to vital social services, such as counseling, employment placement, higher education, and housing services.
What’s more, those who lack stable housing and also live with a mental health disorder are more likely to fall into the category of “chronic homelessness.” The chronically homeless are those individuals who have been homeless for a year or more, or who have experienced at least three episodes of homelessness in a three-year period. Finding and maintaining stable housing is extremely problematic for the chronically homeless, about 30% of whom have severe mental health issues, according to Ohio University.
High rent costs serve as an additional housing barrier for those experiencing chronic homelessness, and states need a creative solution to the growing issue. To help reduce chronic homeless numbers in Utah, for example, the state enacted its “Housing First” policy in 2005, which focused on providing housing first, followed by substance abuse or mental health treatment. As of 2015, the Housing First approach reportedly lowered Utah’s rate of chronic homelessness by 91%.
Potential Solutions to the U.S. Homeless Epidemic
But housing is just a small piece of the puzzle for many homeless individuals. Those who are also living with a coexisting condition, such as mental illness or substance abuse, may also struggle with costs associated with medical care, or go without treatment altogether.
So what can be done to help keep vulnerable populations, such as the chronically homeless, off the streets? For starters, Utah’s Housing First model is an ideal stepping stone towards social policies that promote healthy living and stable housing. And in order to safeguard vulnerable populations, including America’s homeless, addressing health-related social challenges is imperative. According to Duquesne University, these social determinants include lack of employment, illiteracy, and housing insecurity.
From humanitarian organizations that cater to poor populations to government subsidies that provide rent assistance, there seems to be no shortage of options for America’s homeless. Yet the problem is still growing across the country, in rural communities and major metropolitan areas alike. As long as U.S. rent costs continue to climb, we can expect the issue of homelessness to grow as well.