Understanding homelessness

May 26th, 2020
This article is featured in the Acting Missionally issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

The basics of homelessness 

For most of us, the mental picture we conjure when we think of someone experiencing homelessness is crafted from the images we’ve seen of people asking for help on the side of the road or sleeping on a park bench. We bring to mind someone who has experienced more than their fair share of life’s hard knocks, perhaps suffering from addiction or mental health issues and unable to hold regular employment. This segment of the homeless population, often referred to as the chronically homeless, comprises those we see sleeping in doorways or in tent encampments under overpasses. However, the chronically homeless, who are often most visible to the public, actually make up a minority of those experiencing homelessness at any given time. These are the members of society who often are left bouncing between living on the street, in jail or in the hospital. 

Though less visible, the transitionally homeless and episodically homeless make up the majority of people experiencing homelessness. The transitionally homeless tend to be younger than the chronically homeless and generally enter the shelter system for one stay and stay for a shorter duration. They often end up homeless for some period of time because they were precariously housed in the first place and then suffered a catastrophic event like a job loss, medical emergency or natural disaster. Usually people in this situation are able to transition into more stable housing, and this high rate of turnover accounts for them being a higher percentage of the homeless population at a given time.

The remainder of the homeless population is deemed episodically homeless and is made up of those who shuttle in and out of homelessness. Like the chronically homeless, they are often unemployed and disproportionately likely to suffer from mental and/or physical disabilities and substance abuse issues. 

Compiling statistics and demographic data about the homeless population is notoriously difficult due to the transient nature of their living arrangements. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) uses a “Point-in-Time Count,” where a community counts the sheltered and unsheltered individuals in their midst on a single night to make a rough approximation of the homeless population. HUD’s 2016 Point-in-Time Count found that more than a third (35%) of unhoused individuals were part of a family unit that was suffering from homelessness. This was a huge increase from one in six people (15%) in 2013. Additionally, 31% of all homeless people were under the age of 24, significantly higher than the 20% of the United States population under that age. This Point-in-Time count included almost 40,000 veterans, two-thirds of whom were in shelters or transitional housing at the time. 

Complicating homelessness 

We cannot fully grasp the extent of homelessness simply by considering those who are visibly living on the street. In addition to the visible homeless are those who might be using their cars as shelter or temporarily staying in a cheap hotel or on a short-term basis with friends or family. The definition for homelessness put forward by HUD, which determines who qualifies for homeless assistance, includes those who are imminently losing their nighttime shelter, whether it be a hotel, motel or temporary arrangement with friends, and lack the resources to remain in housing. It also includes those fleeing domestic violence, families with children, and unaccompanied youth with unstable housing. 

Because many shelters are geared towards unaccompanied men, often fewer resources are available for families, women and teens. Even though they are a critical resource, overnight shelters are frequently noisy, dirty and violent, so even unaccompanied men sometimes choose to take their chances on the street. Many municipalities continue to crack down on the homeless population, clearing tent cities off of public land and criminalizing panhandling in popular thoroughfares. While these actions might remove the homeless from view by chasing them into less dense areas, they rarely seek to solve any of the underlying issues. Advocates for the homeless argue that being homeless is not a crime, and that criminalization and fines make it even more difficult for people to leave the streets. 

Factors contributing to homelessness 

Often, the causes of homelessness are blamed on situations that directly affect an individual, including unemployment, mental health and addiction issues, disability and domestic violence. However, the rise in homelessness and in those with unstable housing, especially among the working poor who have stable employment, points to more systemic factors. The combination of increased housing prices, a failure to invest in affordable housing in desirable areas, expensive medical care and stagnant wages has created a perfect storm. The housing crisis in America has gotten so bad that some places, especially in California, have considered declaring a state of emergency to obtain funding that is normally used to address natural disasters like fires and earthquakes and that will also allow them to bypass certain regulations. 

While homelessness in any individual person’s life may have a number of factors, it is, more broadly, inextricably linked with poverty. The costs of food, housing, medical care, child care, education and clothing add up, and when resources are limited, people are forced to make difficult choices. Since housing absorbs such a high proportion of most people’s income, it often becomes one of the first areas to drop in a crisis. If you are poor, it can only take one missed paycheck, illness or accident to put you out of a home. More than half (58%) of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings and do not have a financial cushion to weather adverse circumstances. Frankly, most of us are much closer to being homeless than we are to being millionaires, and this should increase our sympathy for people experiencing homelessness. 

Most church-based homeless ministries focus on food, shelter, and resources for the chronically homeless, which is important work, but it does not necessarily do much to “solve” homelessness. The only real solution to homelessness is housing that is accessible and affordable.

Homelessness during a pandemic 

As state and city governments instituted “Shelter-in-Place” or “Safer-at-Home” orders to combat the spread of COVID-19, people experiencing homelessness faced a tough dilemma. Without a home, it is difficult to be “Safer-at-Home,” and most homeless shelters are designed to house many individuals in close proximity, the very conditions that spread COVID-19. The basic hygiene measures recommended by health departments like regularly washing one’s hands, wearing masks and social distancing are difficult, if not impossible, for people living on the streets. 

Some cities have tried to consolidate their homeless populations in overflow shelters, but, unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has hit homeless individuals particularly hard, in the same way the virus has traveled through closely housed prison populations and meat-packing plants. Even though many have been infected, by being able to test widely, quarantine positive cases and provide appropriate medical treatment, these actions have prevented broader spread among others in the shelter and the wider community. 

In addition to a public health crisis, COVID-19 has also been an economic crisis with record levels of unemployment. Many states and cities have put eviction moratoriums into place so that landlords cannot forcibly remove people from their homes for lack of payment, and the Wall Street Journal reported that in April about a third of renters did not pay rent. The housing crisis is not new, but it has been exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

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