(Photo by Sarah Bones Photography, courtesy of Pathways to Housing PA)
There is one thing that is true in the recent State of Homelessness in America report released by the Council of Economic Advisers: “Improved policies that address the underlying causes of the problem and more effectively serve some of the most vulnerable members of society are needed.”
Yes, we do need improved policies to address the underlying causes of homelessness. But the causes of homelessness outlined in the report overlook the larger, societal contributing factors to homelessness that have quite honestly impacted the number of people experiencing homelessness far more than the things stated in the report.
The poverty rate in the United States is 11.8%. That means 1 out of every 10 Americans is living on less than $12,490 per year. If you’re a person of color, you’re up to two times as likely to live below the poverty line: white, non-hispanic people have an 8.1% poverty rate, Black people are at 20.8%, and Latinx people are at 17.6%.
Why is the poverty rate so high in a country known for its wealth? Well, that probably starts with our minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Working an average of 40 hours per week, that translates to $15,080 annually — before taxes. People working minimum wage jobs need two jobs, or a whole lot of overtime, to stay above the poverty line. There’s no opportunity to save or provide more than the very basics at that salary, which means one small thing like a car breakdown, a leak in the ceiling, or an unexpected medical bill can force someone into homelessness. Minimum wage and public benefits aren’t keeping up with the cost of housing.
Not only that, almost half of adult Americans (46.4%) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. The Council of Economic Advisers is correct in stating that mental illness contributes to the number of people experiencing homelessness, but those in poverty are affected disproportionately to those in general population who have the supports and resources to seek treatment and recovery from a mental illness.
Incarceration is another leading contributor to homelessness. Finding housing and employment after incarceration is incredibly difficult, which has led to formerly incarcerated people being 10 times as likely as the general public to experience homelessness. Prisons in the United States aren’t doing nearly enough to help people to reintegrate, which is a policy issue far more important than housing regulation.
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The Council of Economic Advisers’ proposed solutions to homelessness will actively harm both people experiencing homelessness and people in poverty who are at risk of homelessness.
Housing deregulation will not lead to affordable housing; investing in affordable housing units and subsidies will lead to affordable housing. The only thing that housing deregulation will do is increase profits for developers who are already maximizing their profits by keeping rents too high for low-income tenants.
Criminalizing activities like loitering, sleeping in cars, on the sidewalk, or on a public bench will only lead to more people incarcerated and experiencing homelessness.
It’s important to note that housing and support services are the most cost effective solution to homelessness: it costs just $76 per night for Housing First and support services, while inpatient drug and alcohol costs $113/night, prison costs $117/night, congregate housing costs $155/night; emergency room visits and psychiatric hospital stays all cost more than $1,000 per night. If policing is increased for people experiencing homelessness, it’s going to end up costing taxpayers more than it would to provide these folks with a home.
This report also further harms those experiencing homelessness by reinforcing the message that homelessness has increased due to “more tolerable conditions for sleeping on the streets.”
In our experience, people don’t remain on the streets because of tolerable conditions. They remain on the streets because they’ve been shown, over and over again, that society doesn’t believe that they matter. They’ve been taken advantage of, lied to, denied again and again for services, and told that they have no worth and would be better off dead. So, rather than try again to get back on their feet, they fade into the background.
Living unsheltered is not tolerable. It’s not comfortable. But the repeated humiliation of asking for help and being denied a basic human right conditions these folks to think that they’re better off on the street. And reinforcing that stigma will further marginalize those who are already on the very edges of society.
Rather than sweep human beings under the rug so they aren’t considered an eyesore, let’s develop policies that support the basic human right of housing. Everyone deserves a place to call home.-30-
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