1 in 1,849 Americans are on the streets while 1 in 819 are in shelters
There were about 25,951 homeless people in the Bay Area last year (Kendall). According to an annual homeless assessment report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a Cabinet department which “administers programs that provide housing and community development assistance and also works to ensure fair and equal housing opportunity for all” (“U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development”), on January of 2016, there were an estimated 549,928 people experiencing homelessness in the United States (“Homelessness”).
Bright lights of the Bay Area
The Bay Area is an ideal place to live with unique culture, rich diversity, amazing weather, and natural beauty. Unfortunately, the Bay Area also has one of the largest homeless populations in the country, which I have experienced first-hand. In spite of a few encampments, most homeless people are clinging on to life with only a tent and some clothes to face the elements, along with some additional items of sentimental value. They live day-to-day, begging and waiting in line, all with a slim chance of food.
Homelessness has been an issue from the start of U.S. history in England in the 1300s seen in the authorization of the 1383 English Poor Laws which identified and collared vagabonds, who were homeless people who chose not to work and begged instead. These vagabonds were later sent to English colonies as rejects (Axelson).
Since then, homelessness has evolved in many different iterations. In the early 1800s, with the societal transition from an agrarian society to urban cities during the first stages of the Industrial Revolution, tramps who lost their jobs were forced to sleeping in lodging houses at police stations (Sciences, National Academies of, et al). Heavy industrialization following the Civil War in the late 1800s with rapid westward expansion gave way to the hobo, a daring and heroic folklore hero who would travel by “riding the rails” for work (Axelson). The Great Depression in the 1930s led to about two million people across the U.S. losing their jobs and becoming homeless (“Homelessness”).
Up until the 1970s and 80s, Social Darwinism had dominated the U.S.’s historical attitudes and values where it was believed that it was homeless people’s inbred weakness or laziness that they hadn’t worked hard enough (Axelson). There was a new paradigm shift when the public realized that the problem of homelessness was caused by underemployment in the capitalist industrial economy and the lack of resources people inherited, instead of bad character (Bernstein).
Although homelessness was not
Homelessness can be imperceptible to the community, masking its seriousness. The current manifestation of homelessness originated in the late 1900s as a result of the economic dislocation of jobs, shrinking of social safety nets especially with the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, and the failed housing policy, affecting affordable housing both federally and locally (Sciences, National Academies of, et al). The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s flawed method of “Point-in-Time” homeless counts relies on volunteers conducting visual counts of peripatetic homeless resident, who have every incentive to hide themselves, was proven to have undercounted by more than 100,000 people by Zillow utilized algorithms accounting for city populations, poverty rates, rent affordability, and official counts (Kendall). Homelessness has been a pressing national problem in the US since its creation, but our obliviousness of the big picture only adds to the complexity of the solution.
On a local scale, there have been some pretty successful approaches to the problem. Skid Row, in Los Angeles, has been constructing a network of long-term affordable housing by furnishing old and sturdy buildings since 1984 in order to support around 17,740 people (“SRO Housing Home”). The Coalition for the Homeless, one of the nation’s oldest organizations helping the homeless, has won legal protection for its population through lawsuits and pioneered the permanent supportive housing and “Housing First” policies in New York City in the 1980s, which combines affordable housing with support services to better aid the people with special needs long term (“Proven Solutions”). The Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless (MCCH) is a nonprofit organization which oversees many of the county’s homeless programs also advocates the Housing First approach utilizing a $4 million Housing Initiative Fund (Minaya). Sydney Medford, a Head Royce senior and recipient of the GOA Catalyst for Change Prize for her work on Oakland shelters, believes in transitional sheltering, which serves as a middle step for the homeless in between the streets and permanent shelter in order to take more people off the street (“Medford Interview”). These innovate strategies have shown, on a small scale, that they can contest the modern wave of homelessness.
Through my research, I have consistently found that the Housing First policy has been the most effective current solution to the sustainable development goal of no poverty. Although temporary and emergency shelter can be promising, building and maintaining shelters can be pretty costly and the homeless try to avoid them as they are forced to give up many of their sentimental belongings (“Medford Interview”). The Housing First policy of permanent housing, primarily through affordable and low-income housing, is much cheaper as you are renovating, allowing you to help a larger range of people and more effective long-term than shelters as people gain the opportunity to utilize services for their chronic conditions and just having the privacy and feeling of a home makes a huge difference to people (Semuels).
In order for this solution to work, funding is key, especially federally. As housing costs have gone up, federal funding has stayed constant (Semuels). As of right now, there is only one piece of federal legislation allocating funding to directly help homeless people: McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (“Homelessness in the United States”). By spending more money to help homelessness the government is not realizing that they are also helping to solve other big problems like unemployment, food insecurity, and substance abuse.
While the issues of homelessness can be very complex, an individual can have a significant impact on homeless people. As homeless people can sometimes have close to nothing, any type of volunteering or donation could make the difference between life and death for them. In addition, self-education and advocacy efforts can be valuable in spreading awareness to progress the movement on a larger scale and ultimately help the cause become one step closer to being solved.