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Homelessness, not helplessness in the US
by Cielito Pascual

A report on the factors driving up the numbers of homeless people, and the initiatives which are providing both short and long term solutions. 


New York, USA
Since the colonial era there has always been a segment of the American population living without permanent dwelling. The numbers surged after the Civil War in the 1860s with discharged war veterans and immigrant laborers, and especially during the Great Depression in the 1930s. In the main, this population was referred to as ‘hobos’, tramps or transients. In the late 1970s, when America began to see a startling increase of people forced to live on urban streets, the term "homeless" first entered the mainstream lexicon. The phenomenon was seen as a shocking aberration, garnering media attention and causing public outcry. Today, many Americans accept it, with resignation, as an unchanging feature of the social landscape.  

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Today, many Americans accept homelessness, with resignation, as an unchanging feature of the social landscape

Though it seems as if this crisis has been pushed to the periphery of public awareness, homelessness activists are voicing hope. Paula Van Ness, director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) says: "It is not a hopeless situation and we are not helpless. Both public agencies and non-profit organizations are finding ways to move people into permanent housing and they are finding ways to help people get their lives on track. The tricky part is figuring out what we need to do on the scale that it needs to be done at."

In a 1996 study, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated that on any given night 760,000 people are homeless. A national telephone survey conducted in 1994 identified formerly homeless people and showed that as many as 12 million adult residents of the US have been homeless at some point in their lives.

Today, many Americans accept homelessness, with  resignation, as an unchanging feature of the social
landscape

Homelessness on the scale seen today is largely an outcome of the shortage of affordable housing and an increase in the numbers of the poor. According to The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), a national advocacy network, there are 4.7 million more low-income renters in this country than there are low-income units available to rent. This is the largest shortage on record.

The contraction in social-welfare spending throughout the 1980s and the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill have both contributed to the unraveling of the "safety net" that previously kept the very poor from a perilous slide into homelessness. Indeed, Nan Roman, lobbyist for NAEH on Capital Hill, says: "The fact that there are homeless people is an indication that the system of social welfare spending in the United States is not working for a lot of people."

Though the Welfare Reform Bill is intended to move people from welfare dependency into employment, having a job is no guarantee of being able to afford a place to live. In fact, in most states, a minimum-wage worker would have to work 83 hours each week to afford a two-bedroom apartment at 30 per cent of his or her income, which is the federal definition of affordable housing. A survey of 29 US cities found that almost one in five homeless persons is employed in full- or part-time jobs.

The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is families, accounting for 40 per cent. The typical homeless family is one headed by a 20-year-old mother of two, who did not complete high school, reads at a sixth grade level and has never worked. There is a 25-35 per cent chance that she has been a victim of domestic violence. Some 24 per cent of requests for shelter by homeless families were denied in 1996 due to lack of resources.

To date, the only major federal legislative response to homelessness is the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act passed by Congress in l987. Regarded as landmark legislation, it authorized funding for a broad range of services for homeless adults and children, including healthcare, education, job training and housing assistance.

 

Homelessness is largely an outcome of the shortage of affordable housing and an increase in the numbers of the poor

 McKinney programs have been evaluated as innovative, effective and cost-worthy, but the resources currently allocated to them are not enough to meet demand — the magnitude of which is expected to quadruple over the next 10 years.  

Meanwhile, non-profit agencies such as the Emergency Housing Consortium in Santa Clara County, California, and the American Family Inn based in New York City continue to transform the advocacy approach from short-term emergency responses to long-term solutions. As well as addressing basic needs in a comfortable and secure environment, the programs feature on-site healthcare, drug rehabilitation, family counseling and recreation. These organizations have shown that, at a cost significantly less than traditional shelters, their new approaches can profoundly affect and redirect the futures of numerous individuals and families.

Michael Stoops, a 25-year activist with the National Coalition for the Homeless and a key figure in the formulation of the McKinney Act, asserts that the solutions to end homelessness already exist. "We know we can help individual homeless people. From this we think we know how to solve homelessness in this country. We simply have to decide we want to do it. And then we must come forth with the necessary private and public resources. We need to convince politicians that to allow someone to live and die on the streets is actually more expensive in terms of financial and moral capital."

Initiatives and innovations to assist people who are experiencing homelessness

- The American Family Inn, created by Homes for the Homeless in New York City, is a private non-profit organization which has served over 14,000 families and 23,000 children since l986. Some 94 per cent of the families they train, educate, counsel and house with on-going support assistance have remained in permanent housing for at least two years. The yearly cost to service one family (one adult, two children) is approximately $25,000, compared to $38,000 at a traditional shelter. Graduates of their work-training program have been placed in employment at the auction house of Sotheby’s, the MTV network, and the financial firm Bear-Sterns, among others.

- Community Technology Institute of Seattle, Washington, now provides voice-mail service to low-income and homeless people to help them set up interviews and receive call-backs. Funded through donations and grants, it is the nation’s first service of its kind. The agency has provided free voice-mail boxes to over 20,000 homeless and phoneless people.

- The Healthcare Center for the Homeless in Orlando, Florida, provides primary medical care, dentistry, eye care and medical education. They treat conditions that would hinder a person’s efforts to find a job or a home. Some 250 physicians, dentists and optometrists donate their services to Orlando’s homeless population of 10,000.

- Fannie Mae, the nation’s largest corporation supplying mortgage funds to assist low and middle income homebuyers, has created a foundation partnered with The National Alliance to End Homelessness. Their commitment is to educate and galvanize the involvement of many thousands of school children on the issues of homelessness.

- The Emergency Housing Consortium, has just completed a $5 million, 250-bed Regional Reception Center in San Jose, California, calling it "one-stop shopping for the homeless". The Center features shelter, job placement, storage space, healthcare, shuttle service, private rooms for families and play areas for children, and even an on-line school for children. The facility is a collaboration among public, private, and nonprofit organizations in San Jose’s South Bay area.  

From the July/August 1999 issue of Share International.


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005