The Oft-Ignored Issue of Homelessness

Originally published in the JHU Politik on April 8th, 2013.

Sometimes wars, thousands of miles away, can seem more pressing than the thousands of cold and hungry people sleeping on the streets of our communities. Too often people feel there is little they can do to actually affect long-term structural housing change. This view, while popular, is wrong.

In many ways, the Obama administration has taken some innovative steps towards ending homelessness. In 2009 the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) was created; it allocated funds to state and local governments to keep individuals and families in their homes and to help people who were already homeless find affordable housing. This $1.5 billion program, which was included in the $840 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, worked to rehouse people, keep others off the streets with rental assistance, and provide emergency housing, security deposits, moving expenses, and other means of temporary aid. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), an independent agency within the executive branch, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have been leading these efforts.

Over the past four years, the number of chronically homeless people—an at-risk population often in need of mental and physical health services—fell about seven percent in 2011 and more than 19 percent since 2007. Homelessness among veterans declined more than seven percent in 2011 and 17 percent since 2009. These drops are significant, and HPRP marked the first time that such a large amount of federal funds were made available for homelessness prevention at the national level. Real tangible progress can be seen when money is invested into the prevention and eradication of homelessness. In the past five years, HUD and USICH increased the number of available beds in emergency shelters by about 15 percent, and the number of beds in longer term housing by almost 50 percent. Despite decreases among particularly at-risk individuals and military veterans, homelessness has increased among families and young people, including college graduates. The Government’s partial success highlights the need for further investment into preventing this eminently avoidable problem.

Currently, tens of thousands of underemployed and unemployed young adults between the ages of 18-24, are struggling to afford shelter; the recession has left workers in this age bracket with the highest unemployment rate of all adults. Specific information on this population is difficult to obtain-most cities have not made special efforts to identify young people who tend to avoid ordinary shelters. However, the Obama administration has begun an information gathering initiative with nine communities to seek out those young adults who live without a consistent home address. In 2011, Los Angeles attempted a count of young adults living on the street and found 3,600—however, the city had shelter capacity for only 17 percent of them.Additionally there were approximately 64,000 more families in shelters in 2011 than in 2007—an increase of about 13 percent. Also the number of families with children in “worst case” housing situations—meaning that they spend more than half of their income on housing or that they live in dangerous, substandard buildings—rose to 3.3 million from 2.2 million. Many of these families are just one financial obstacle away from losing their homes.

To be sure, some, particularly young adults, are often hesitant to reach out for governmental help. Additionally, there are others, even right here in Baltimore, who resist pressure to relocate from the streets into shelters or low-quality housing.

Mark Johnston, HUD’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development, told the New York Times that homelessness could be effectively eradicated in the United States at an annual cost of approximately $20 billion. The housing department’s budget for addressing homelessness is currently around $1.9 billion. While the Obama Administration has made the right choice in extending the homelessness prevention program, it is unfortunately running on less funding than the administration’s goals require.

“The evidence is clear that every dollar we spend on those programs that help find a stable home for our homeless neighbors not only saves money but quite literally saves lives,” HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said in a statement.

Ultimately, to address homelessness we must first realize that we indeed can.

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