Reading Time: 10 min (Another long read, but very rewarding)
There are no quick fixes or easy answers to the problem of homelessness. However, we do know that not doing anything is not going to fix it. Our primary objective is to provide safe and adequate housing, transportation, and food.
Homelessness is an increasingly serious problem within society. The solution has always been to manage, instead of end this problem. Efforts to address this problem must be changed to a proactive approach to end homelessness. Three key measures that must be taken to end homelessness are to ensure living wages are paid to all workers, the creation of more affordable housing units and a Housing First approach for those who are chronically homeless due to physical or mental disabilities.
On any given night there are 750,000 adults and children in America without a place to call home (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2005). These individuals and families are living in the woods, in abandoned buildings and on the streets. Current policies to combat the problem of homelessness are costly and focus on managing the problem. There are solutions to end homelessness that would save taxpayers millions of dollars and would put an end to homelessness.
Many envision a homeless person as a dirty man, sitting on a sidewalk or park bench drinking alcohol out of a paper bag. The reality is quite the opposite. The fastest growing population of homeless people is actually families with children (50%). Many homeless people are also employed (25-40%). Twenty-five percent of homeless people are under the age of 18 and 30% are over the age of 45. The percentage of homeless that are physically or mentally disabled or have substance abuse issues is 30% (Hurley, 2002).
The two major causes of homelessness is lack of affordable housing and low wages. In the past twenty-five years, the amount of people who are homeless has risen greatly due to the changing infrastructure of income, housing, and services that support the poor. To eradicate homelessness, this infrastructure must be rebuilt (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2005). People might argue that the homeless are lazy and just need to get a job, but for many, this is not an easy task. Presently, a vicious cycle exists. It is difficult to get a job without an address and phone number, but in order to obtain a permanent address and phone number, one is required to have an income.
Many Americans associate hard work with financial success, however, millions of Americans work hard every day, but can not afford the cost of housing. Those who have never been poor argue that homeless people should get a job. The reality is that a job does not always pay for housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that there is not one community in the nation in which an individual working at minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment. A full-time worker needs to earn $11.08 per hour (215% of minimum wage) to be able to afford an apartment; a person working a minimum wage job would need to work 86 hours per week. Many citizens provide labor that is crucial to the American economy, yet they are paid such low wages, that they are unable to support themselves or their families. In 1967, a full-time worker earning minimum wage could support a family of three and stay above the poverty line. Between 1981 and 1990, minimum wage stayed the same ($3.35 per hour), yet the cost of living rose 48%. Between 1975 and 1998, the portion of income the poorest one-fifth of Americans received had dropped from 4.4% to 3.6%. Meanwhile, the income for the wealthiest one-fifth of the population rose from 43% to 49%. In 1996, Congress raised minimum wage to $5.15 per hour, but this increase did not make up for the rise in inflation. A full-time minimum wage earner in 1998 earned only 85% of the poverty line for a family of three (Shipler, 2004). It is essential to create wages and benefits that will allow families to pay for the basic necessities, such as housing, food, and healthcare.
In the mid 1990′s, the living wage movement began in the United States. Living wage ordinances are legislation at the county or city level, which establishes a wage for workers set above minimum wage. Presently there are 100 living wage ordinances throughout the United States and 70 campaigns to enact new legislature. These ordinances cover employees working for firms that have contracts with the city and firms that receive subsidies from the city. Those against living wage ordinances feel the small benefit it provides is too costly to businesses and taxpayers. Studies conducted around the country have shown these ordinances have not had negative effects on either the public finances or local economies. On the contrary, the studies found that living wage ordinances not only increased the incomes of the working poor, but actually strengthened and added vitality to local economies by lessening the poverty and inequality and increasing local buying power (Egendorf, 2005). Communities need to adopt living wage ordinances which are tied to the cost of housing for all jobs in their region. This is one step toward eliminating homelessness.
Most people who are poor are renters. Many of these renters are at a high risk of becoming homeless. The problem is two-fold: low incomes and the growing shortage of affordable housing. In 1995, the amount of low-income renters surpassed the number of low-cost apartments by 4.4 million. A necessary step to end homelessness is to make available more affordable housing. The need for affordable housing has been on the rise, but the number of affordable apartments and single-room rentals has decreased. Between 1973 and 1993, 2.2 million low-income housing units were eliminated, but the demand for these units increased by 4.7 million. Between 1993 and 1995, another 900,000 low cost apartments vanished from the market (Balkin, 2004).
Some states have enacted legislation to address this growing need. In 2005, the state of Connecticut renewed its commitment to provide more affordable housing to its residents. Connecticut’s State Treasurer, Denise Napier, contends that the state’s economic growth is reliant upon an adequate supply of affordable units. Connecticut has set up a fund to expand the number of low-income units. These funds will come from an additional $30.00 fee that will be charged to each person recording documents in land records. Seven dollars out of this fee will then be given to the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. It is estimated that this fund will generate $6.5 million annually and will be used for new and existing programs that will provide housing to low-income families (Connecticut Housing Coalition, 2005).
The cost to federal and local governments for people living on the streets is enormous. These costs include law enforcement agencies, hospitals, social service agencies and prisons. The University of California tracked 15 homeless people for 18 months and recorded 417 emergency room visits between them at a cost of $1 million. Too much money is being spent on maintaining the status of homeless people, instead of ending their homelessness. The main way homelessness is dealt with in the United States is through costly emergency shelters. Shelters are necessary for short-term stays for people in crisis, but often they are used as long-term housing. The United States Housing and Urban Development Emergency Shelter Grants program pays $8,067.00 more for a bed at an emergency shelter than the cost of a federal Section 8 certificate (Balkin, 2004).
The vast majority of community leaders believe placing individuals in homeless shelters is the least expensive way to meet their basic needs. This is not true. Due to the fact that they have no stable place to live, homeless people use public services in ways that are inefficient and expensive to taxpayers. Homeless people are more likely to acquire costly hospital bills that are paid for by the government. They also spend more time in jail for crimes such as loitering or trespassing. This puts a strain on our prison system budget. If homelessness can be prevented or those that become homeless can be placed quickly into stable housing, it will save a considerable amount of money.
It is possible to end homelessness. The Housing First approach along with more affordable housing units and living wage ordinances are the keys to ending homelessness. Economically it makes sense. Getting people off the streets and helping them to become self-sufficient is logical as well.
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