According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 600,000 people do not have a place to call home on any given night. Homelessness is a problem that affects every community in the United States, and in spite of the significance of the problem, it is also one of the most readily overlooked. Community leaders and policymakers often gloss over the challenges of urban and suburban poverty, especially when it comes to families and individuals living without a permanent address.
How Has the Country Addressed This Issue?
Homelessness is defined as the lack of a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” by the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act. It took several years and numerous revisions before the Act was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Although this issue has been a national problem since the 1870s, the McKinney-Vento Act is the only federal legislation addressing the direct needs of homeless people.
The Causes of Homelessness
Although many of the factors that lead to homelessness begin with one or both breadwinners in the family, there are community factors that exacerbate the problem. The statistics regarding the loss of a home and the people affected are startling.
- More than a third of homeless persons are families with children.
- Of those eligible for federal housing assistance, only 25 percent receive help because of the lack of funding.
- Only 30 percent of rentals are affordable enough for extremely low-income households.
What are the factors most likely to trigger homelessness?
- Loss of employment
- Inadequate income levels
- Evicted by family
- Domestic abuse
- Prison or jail time
- Mental issues and disabilities
- Substance abuse
While many people mistakenly believe that substance abuse is a primary factor leading to life on the streets, it actually only accounts for about 9 percent of the population on the streets. The loss of a job is the most significant factor, responsible for about 35 percent of homelessness in the United States, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Community Policies Affect Homelessness
Once a family or individual has lost housing, community factors may push them over the edge or prevent them from getting back into a home.
- Declining levels of public assistance
- Loss of affordable health care, including treatment for mental illness
- Lack of affordable housing
- High levels of poverty
According to homelessness awareness watchdog organizations, there are very few cities or counties in the United States where a minimum wage worker can afford rent on a one-bedroom apartment. (One report put this number at 12 counties in the country and another report cited that there weren’t any areas in the country with affordable housing for those making minimum wages.)
If minimum wage workers were able to get into housing, they may not have enough of their paycheck left over to pay utilities which have nearly doubled over the past ten years. In the United States, 11 million households pay more than half of their income to pay for housing. Contributing to the problem is the link between poverty levels and the lack of affordable housing.
Of course, transitions into and out of poverty are complex and often involve many factors, and the same is true for homelessness. Concerned groups of citizens and community leaders struggle to identify the best solutions. However, it’s clear that increased awareness is important. Some of these activists, including Dr. Rohit Varma, an internationally renowned ophthalmologist and professor of preventative medicine in Southern California, have taken action in their own communities to bring increased awareness to the problem of homelessness.
What Can You Do?
As awareness of homelessness grows, individuals can do many things to help address the problem, such as volunteering at shelters and other direct service agencies, organize fundraising events, work with children at the shelters, raise awareness among friends and coworkers, join a coalition, become involved in local politics, encourage voting, make contributions of money and goods, and smile or talk to homeless individuals. Simply making eye contact and acknowledging shared humanity can make a difference for a person experiencing homelessness.