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Voices / Column

A growing problem

Combatting homelessness demands political will, collective effort at the local level

Elayne Clift writes about politics, women, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

Saxtons River

You’ve seen their pictures on television and their faces on street corners: a mother bathing her child from a bucket on the seat of the car they call home; a man at a stoplight with a sign that reads “Homeless vet, please help,” a homeless teenager with vacant eyes wandering aimlessly on city streets.

In New York City alone, an estimated 50,000 people sleep in shelters or on the streets every night. Almost half of them are children. And the problem is getting worse. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002, the shelter population has risen by over 60 percent, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans throughout the country become homeless. Many are hidden from view in cars and campgrounds. They are scared, frustrated, and desperate.

The reasons for their lack of a safe, permanent home are many: lack of affordable housing, extreme poverty, decreasing government support, domestic violence, and housing foreclosures, to name a few.

For the vulnerable, all it takes to push them into a world in which they have no safety net is a minor event, let alone a major illness.

When the National Alliance to End Homelessness unveiled its “State of Homelessness in American 2013” report in April, Nan Roman, its president, cautiously noted that the national rate of homelessness had not risen much between 2011 and 2012.

Roman applauded the fact that veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness had both been reduced by about 7 percent during that time period.

But she noted that with federal funding drying up for prevention and rapid re-housing for the general population on top of sequestration-induced cutbacks, the future did not look good, especially for vulnerable groups like veterans, youths who lack needed care, victims of domestic abuse, and people with disabilities.

* * *

Anyone receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of special needs knows all too well how hard it is to afford stable housing. The average monthly price of rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S. exceeds the SSI payment that poor people with disabilities receive from the government.

Consequently, “people with disabilities are facing a form of discrimination because they can’t afford housing,” says an advocate with the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force.

Homeless veterans, who comprise almost a quarter of the total homeless population in this country, are another particular concern.

“Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men who sleep in a doorway, alley, or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served this country,” notes the National Coalition for the Homeless.

And women vets, who a few years ago represented an estimated 3 percent of homeless veterans, are now at increased risk of homelessness due to diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from injuries suffered while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Homeless youth — individuals younger than age 18 who lack parental, foster, or institutional care, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless — are usually on the street because of family problems, economic problems, and residential instability.

“Many homeless youth leave home after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member, and parental neglect,” the Coalition reports.

One recent study found that 46 percent of runaway and homeless youth had been physically abused, and 17 percent were forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member. Few shelter beds are available to youth, and because of their age, homeless youth have few legal means by which they can earn enough money to meet basic needs.

* * *

Intact families, too, experience the terrible stress of being homeless.

They move frequently and often double up in overcrowded apartments with relatives or friends until their living arrangements are no longer viable. Then they find themselves in noisy, chaotic shelters that lack privacy and sufficient space for families.

The situation often leads to families separating or dissolving.

Here’s how a typical family experiencing homelessness looks: A mother in her late 20s with two children is escaping a violent relationship. She doesn’t have a high-school diploma but works a minimum-wage job part-time. Chronically tired and depressed, her fears and sense of hopelessness add to the insecurity of her children, both under 6 years old.

Imagine living this terrifying scenario.

* * *

In their report, the National Alliance to End Homelessness outlines three immediate steps that are needed to shore up the homeless services system in this country.

First, we need a crisis-response system to respond immediately to homelessness and thus help people stabilize quickly.

Second, prevention and rapid re-housing services are “absolutely vital to help catch people before they spiral downward,” the NAEH recommends.

And third, we need more affordable housing and permanent supportive housing in major cities.

Such efforts demand huge political will and collective effort at the local level. It will not be easy to change the reality of homelessness in America.

But imagine, for just a moment, that you are the woman in the car, bathing your child from a bucket. That you are the vet with the cardboard sign on the corner of Main Street. That you are the homeless kid escaping sexual violence.

Then tell me that remedies can’t be found, that it costs too much, that it is not something we can address right away.

Then tell it to the mother, the vet, the sexually abused girl at a bus stop, the disabled man who can’t find affordable housing.

Is that really something you can, in good conscience, do?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #215 (Wednesday, August 7, 2013).

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