Our “Invisible” Population-Homelessness

By: Grainne Rhuad

“Being poor is a state of mind, not a condition.” HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson explaining to Congress why he refused to discuss housing the poor. May 21,2004.  It is deeply troubling when our secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) doesn’t want to address housing the poor.  That is, the job description of HUD and its secretary.

A term has been coined for the homeless amongst us: “The Invisible Population” The homeless are invisible only if your eyes are shut.  Even then we should be increasingly aware of those living in poverty and on the streets as America approaches third world status in its treatment of homeless people.

As long as there have been communities there have been people excluded from them.  Some by choice, others due to not following social mores. Some of these outsiders whether they were lepers, criminals or fanatics had no shelter and could be considered homeless.

“Homelessness” is defined in the United States Code, Chapter 119, Subchapter I, §11302, “General definition of homeless individual”:

The term “homeless” or “homeless individual or homeless person” includes:

1. An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and

2. An individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is —

A. A supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill)

B. An institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or

C. A public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

Now as ever, most people would prefer to not see the homeless on their doorstep.  It makes one feel like they are living in less than desirable circumstances; which they are.  Also for a lot of people it shows a picture that is a little too close to home.

But have the types of people who are currently homeless changed in the last few years?  The answer is yes and no.  Recent statistics show the following:

  • 32% were homeless persons in families.
  • 68% were homeless individuals.
  • 64% of homeless adults were male.
  • 62% of the homeless were a minority.
  • 43% had a disability.
  • 40% of all these individuals were between 31 and 50 years old.

In addition Estimates of subpopulations of the homeless based on the nationwide single-night January 2008 PIT count show:

  • About 15% were veterans.
  • Almost 13% were recent victims of domestic violence.
  • Nearly 26% were persons with severe mental illness.
  • 37% were persons with chronic substance abuse issues.
  • 2% were unaccompanied youth under age 18.
  • 4% were persons with HIV/AIDS.

The chronically homeless are another subpopulation. The federal definition of chronically homeless used by HUD states that a chronically homeless person is either an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more or an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

To be considered chronically homeless, a person must have been on the streets or in emergency shelter (i.e., not in transitional or permanent housing).

There are other subcategories of homeless people that are important to look at.  It’s a lot easier to see the homeless in our cities and urban areas.  However rural homelessness is on the rise as well. The most distinguishing factor of rural homelessness is access to services. Unlike in urban areas, many rural homeless assistance systems lack the infrastructure to provide quick, comprehensive care to those experiencing homelessness. The reason for higher rates of rural homelessness is rural areas tend to have higher rates of poverty, only compounding the risk of becoming and staying homeless in those areas. It’s a basic formula:  Less people=less representation x less money.

Homeless By the numbers:

  • There are 643,067 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.
  • Of that number, 238,110 are people in families, and
  • 404,957 are individuals.
  • 17 percent of the homeless population is considered “chronically homeless,” and
  • 12 percent of the homeless populations are veterans.

These numbers come from point-in-time counts, which are conducted, community by community, on a single night in January every other year. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires communities to submit this data every other year in order to qualify for federal homeless assistance funds. Many communities conduct counts more regularly.

“The homeless don’t need our help. They just want everything for free.” -Ronald Reagan

A broad and insulting statement coming from the man who while Governor of California closed almost all of the Mental Health facilities housing the gravely mentally ill without providing a plan for where they would go.  Ronald Reagan is directly responsible for raising the amount of the gravely mentally ill homeless people on the streets in California.

Mental illness is the third largest cause for single homeless people. “According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill (National Institute of Mental Health, 2009). “[Source: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf]

An inability to work a regular schedule due to mental illness combined with lack of services and instability of medication makes it extremely difficult for the Mentally ill to find and keep housing. Because we have chosen to not provide institutionalized housing or communal housing for the mentally ill, we are seeing exactly what should be expected.  People on the streets.

But it is a self perpetuating cycle.  Because people have unaddressed problems they will most likely always be homeless.  Their chronically untreated conditions do not allow them to get better.  They make no money and what money they get panhandling goes straight to self medication in the form of drugs and alcohol.  This, because they will never be able to afford appropriate treatment.

Another reason people become homeless is due abuses.  Currently in the U.S. 1.6 to 1.7 million of those who are homeless have at some time in their lives been abused. [Source: http://nccp.org/]  Young people run away from dire situations only to find themselves in another dire state.  While they may have escaped the abuse of home or foster care, another 28% end up suffering abuse while homeless, especially youth, women and GLBT individuals.  Whether that abuse is rape, beatings or the way society looks at them it matters not.  Their internal self ends up further traumatized and they very often do not feel like they deserve any better.

There are the very poor people on the streets.  Very often these people have family in tow.  Once you have gotten to the place wherein you are homeless it is very hard to overcome that.  The ability to look for viable employment is almost an insurmountable task.  The lack of access to clothing, grooming and even paper and computer to use for resumes keeps people on the streets.

It is worth pointing out that there are a small percentage of people who actually want to be homeless.  There are several reasons for this, some of which have been listed above.  However there is the very small amount of people who are actually dangerous even sociopathic.  It is easier to fly under the radar and commit crimes that your sociopathic compulsions demand while homeless.

Analysis by the “Opening Doors Coalition”- a federally funded project;  shows some of the top reasons why people are homeless in America include foreclosures, poverty, less secure jobs, declining availability of public assistance, addiction disorders, and mental illnesses.

The sheltered homeless population is estimated to be 42 percent Black, 38 percent White, 20 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Native American and 2 percent Asian. These interesting statistics point to how we live our lives culturally.  Just glancing at the numbers and employing basic historic knowledge we can see that those who value family responsibility and have a long history of multi-generational living end up being at less risk for homelessness.

A major factor in homelessness in the U.S. is the lack of affordable housing. Many things contribute to this and this is not just a result of the housing market dive.  It was a factor beforehand as well.

Most of us have a picture in our mind of homeless or near-homeless people and families living in cheap motels.  People often wonder why someone would chose hotel living over say renting a house.  It’s a valid question.  Currently the cheapest of motel rooms cost around $42 a night. (Including taxes).  That equals about $1260.00 for the month which seems like enough to rent a house or apartment in most areas.  However, a lot of owners will not rent to someone who has a bankruptcy or a history of missing payments; not to mention a criminal record or conversely no credit record at all. The risk is not worth it to them, even if it helps homeless families reestablish themselves.

Also, renting a home requires deposits very often at a higher amount than the rent itself.  It can be hard enough to come up with the money to pay for your rent but for far too many people it is impossible to come up with rent and deposit money.

The housing market crash does however contribute to lack of affordable housing in a different way.  During the housing boom many people invested in rental properties hoping to make a killing off their investments.  When things took a dive, the rents went up.  Owners had to find a way to make their mortgage payments on these houses or lose them.  They also were and are unable to sell them because they are upside down in their loans.  As a result very often, rents were raised in order to meet the mortgage liability of the owners.

Add to that the fact that single family home owners are continuing to lose their homes. Recently top White House advisers questioned the need for a blanket stoppage of all home foreclosures, even as pressure grows on the Obama administration to do something about mounting evidence that banks have used inaccurate documents to evict homeowners.

There are of course many countries in which homelessness doesn’t even enter into their lexicon.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

  1. The countries themselves are so poor and/or war torn that dealing with people without shelter is the least of their worries.  When there is no national stability for anyone, it’s hard to be concerned about the people without roofs over their heads.
  2. Some countries care for their own.  By providing housing for extended family and including everyone in the community both socially and with work, homelessness ceases to be a problem.  This is something we and other “developed” nations have gotten away from.  It seems that as we acquire more in terms of tangible goods, the less we want to share.  You will rarely anymore see generations living together in homes in the U.S.  Here especially we want to have reminders of familial duty as well as age and handicap out of our view.  We seem over concerned with how we present ourselves to the public and sometimes having Nan tottering about is a stress inducing picture for the upwardly mobile set.
  3. Many other cultures view homelessness differently.  It is not always a given that those without their own homes; either rented or owned are homeless.  It may in fact be a choice.  In the U.S.  This choice would still be counted as homelessness, not so in other places.  Also those living for extended periods of time with family or friends would not automatically be labeled homeless.

For the purpose of illustration let’s take a look at some of the home states of our staff:

In 2008, Alaska ranked tenth among the 50 states in concentration of homeless people, with 0.24 percent of the total state estimated to be homeless. Oregon was number one with 0.54 percent, and California was fourth ranked with 0.43 percent.

Homelessness in the U.S. is concentrated in urban areas. But from September 2007 to September 2008, the number of homeless nationally in suburban and rural areas rose from 23 percent of the homeless population to 32 percent.

In my home county in Northern California, we now have at least 1,772 people who are homeless. As a point of reference, that’s close to the stated population of Biggs, California- a medium farming community also in Northern California

Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. and possesses the third highest homeless population in the nation. Approximately 15,000 homeless individuals in Houston live in abandoned buildings, on cardboard makeshift beds, under freeways, and in shelters throughout the city.

“An underpaid worker that cannot afford housing is an industrial slave.” [P.22 American Homeless Land Model]

“On Homeless Empowerment”: “There seems to be an attitude that homeless people are homeless only because they were too stupid to keep their homes and are therefore not very competent at thinking for themselves, and that they therefore need the guidance of more intelligent, “enlightened” people to help them back onto the path to a “normal” life. To any person with an I.Q. of more than 50 who is homeless because of the worsening economic conditions in the country this attitude is, to say the least, extremely insulting. What is lacking here, or maybe only partially formed, is the concept of homeless empowerment: that we should have the power to control our own lives, to use our intelligence to find out own creative solutions to our predicament, and that we are entitled to keep our dignity in the process; that we have the same constitutional rights as every other citizen, and that the very last thing we need is to be treated like criminals or idiots while we are struggling to survive.” -Bridget Reilly

“Why keep the poor weak, then punish them for being weak, and glorify ourselves by handing them charity that they would not need if they were treated justly from the beginning?” [P.24 American Homeless Land Model]

We can work within our communities to combat homelessness and the resultant problems.  In fact this is the most effective way to address this issue.  It does little good to work with National programs as they are bigger and bulkier in their administration, thus a lot of the money gets eaten up therein.

Within your communities vote for measures that provide housing whether temporary or long-term.  For example, my city used to have a housing task force wherein case managers from several different agencies from Hospital Workers to Child Protective services met monthly to present, discuss and approve city funding for apartments.  Criteria to be met included support systems and ability to keep housing once individuals or families were placed in it.  It was a good program which provided housing for around 100 families a year.  The constituents of the city voted out of this program because they didn’t want to pay the extra taxes.  As a result the funding was lost.  This is entirely the fault of the voters.  City managers were in favor of it, agencies working with people in the area were in favor of it and rental owners as well as property management agencies were in favor of it.  Replacing this program was an increase to parks and recreation and public art.

It’s not that either of those things are bad.  However, what good are murals when people are sleeping in their cars and on sidewalks.

In London an orgainization called Centripoint has hosted a very sucessful fundraiser for a number of years now. During its annual event during which participants, called “Sleepers,” give up the comfort of their beds for one night and spend the time outside on the streets. The event allows people to experience a flavor of the daily plight of homeless young adults throughout Britain, albeit with food, security and a roof, amenities the homeless do not have. In addition to a cold, uncomfortable night, Sleepers must raise 500 pounds (a little over $800) that goes to the center.  In its inaugural event five years ago, Sleep Out raised about $65,000; last year it raised about $145,000.

There’s another area in your community in which you can be effective.  Feeding people.  The homeless amongst us obviously have no kitchen access or money.  Providing food is crucial.  Voting in favor of laws that protect food servers like ‘Food Not Bombs’ is also crucial.  Nationwide in the past year, food assistance programs have confronted numerous challenges. The increased cost of food and fuel has made it difficult for food banks to expand or even maintain their normal supply of food. Meanwhile, the economic downturn and rising unemployment have increased the demand for food assistance while decreasing the number of donations from individual donors.

Increased efficiencies among large grocery chains and food suppliers have resulted in less excess supply and thus decreased donations to food banks.  The sharp increase in the price of food means that an increase in funding is necessary just to  maintain supply at previous levels. Over the last year, the price of food increased 6.2 percent, the largest increase in nearly 20 years. The cost of key staples increased even more dramatically – for example the cost of cereals increased 12.3 percent and the cost of fruits and vegetables increased 10.3 percent.  Los Angeles, Boston and Portland reported that increases in the price of food have lead to a decrease in the quantity of food they are able to purchase. Transporting food from large suppliers to those in need also became more expensive because of a significant increase in the price of gasoline.  In Phoenix, where the cost of fuel and trucking expenses has increased by as much as 72 percent, the total amount of food distributed decreased by 13 percent even though the level of funding increased by 30%” [source:U.S. Mayors.org]

Keep in mind however there will always be those who don’t consider themselves homeless even though they technically have no established residence.  It is neither necessary nor helpful to make somebody else conform to your ideal of how a live should be led.

“I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace.” –Frederico Garcia Lorca

And let’s leave off with this: A very telling quote which illustrates why those who both have family money and connections.  It is, I think the reason that people are not willing to help their fellow human beings:

“At Harvard Business School, thirty years ago, George Bush was a student of mine. I still vividly remember him. In my class, he declared that “people are poor because they are lazy.” He was opposed to labor unions, social security, environmental protection, Medicare, and public schools. To him, the antitrust watch dog, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities Exchange Commission were unnecessary hindrances to “free market competition.” To him, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was “socialism.” [Source: Poor=Lazy President Bush and the Gilded Age By Yoshi Tsurumi March 1, 2004 excerpt from article:]


Further Reading: