On a single night in January 2017, there were at least 553,742 persons that were homeless within the United States. Unofficial estimates put that number as even higher. In a country that has more billionaires than any other place on earth, we have enough homeless people to fill over nine football stadiums.
Although the overall homeless population has been steadily declining since the recession of 2010, there is a sharp increase in many larger cities where rents have risen dramatically such as New York and Los Angeles. In fact, Los Angeles had a 26% increase year over year. “The commonality in [these places] are rapidly rising rents, with not rapidly rising incomes. This is causing the displacement of a significant number of people,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson during a recent press call. Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, agreed. “High cost and low vacancy rates are putting more people at risk of entering homelessness, and they’re making it harder and harder for people to find housing as they strive to exit homelessness.”
Despite the challenges in some of the larger metropolitan areas, there are programs that have shown promising results especially in smaller cities and counties. For example, a program called Opening Doors, was introduced in 2010 by the Obama administration and was developed to help solve nationwide homelessness. Since the program started, America’s homeless population has decreased by 13.1 percent. Studies have shown that aspects of the program such as Rapid Re-Housing units (temporary housing designed to move people out of homelessness and into more permanent housing) have been extremely successful.
Another program that has shown promise over the last decade is Housing First. The foundation of the program is that housing is a fundamental right, not a privilege, and the only requirement to qualify is to be homeless. Some other previous solutions required that recipients meet certain goals before they could be considered for permanent housing. However, many people had no chance of meeting those goals without having housing first. Chronic conditions like diabetes or schizophrenia require a stable living environment in order to be treated effectively.
Unfortunately, the common denominator with all of these programs is proper funding at the federal level with support from states and cities. While many policymakers acknowledge that that these programs work, funding has actually fallen at a staggering rate. For example, federal support for low-income housing fell 49% between 1980 and 2003. In addition, the current administration’s proposed budget for 2018 would reduce HUD’s budget further by 6 billion dollars affecting some of the most vulnerable in our society, including families. Further reductions in funding for programs such as drug treatment and mental health facilities will most likely also contribute to a large increase in homelessness across the country and not just in big cities.
If we truly want to make continued progress in solving the homeless problem, budgets need to be increased (or at the very least maintained) for a variety of interrelated programs such as affordable housing, veterans’ affairs, mental health and drug treatment programs. As Todd Stull stated, “It’s a big mistake to come up with a good solution like Housing First and then to hamstring it because we don’t actually have the money for it.” Stull is the clinical director at JOURNEYS | The Road Home, an organization that provides services and shelter to families and individuals in Illinois’s North and Northwest suburban Cook County. “One of the worst things you can do is get someone into housing for a short period of time and then they lose it. Then they lose trust in the providers.”
As a society, it is our obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves. As Ghandi and many other leaders have stated, “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.’’