Do you know what the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is? Families with children. About two-fifths (41 percent) of the homeless population is made up of families, making family homelessness a growing phenomenon.
The American Aid Foundation reports that seven in 10 Americans are just one paycheck away from the street. One survey found that 61 percent of respondents said that if they lost their jobs, they wouldn't be able to cover their mortgage or rent payments for more than five months.
Let's take a closer look at the homelessness crisis in America, and what's being done to address it.
What Is Homelessness?
At one time or another, we've all come across street people, most of whom find themselves to be intermittently or chronically homeless. But the scope of homelessness runs deeper than what a cursory glance renders or a brief interaction elicits.
The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (1987) defines a homeless individual as someone who "lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and has a primary nighttime residency that is a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations." An institutionalized person who temporarily lives in an institutional setting or a displaced person who uses public or private places not designed for or designated as regular sleeping accommodations is included in the broader definition.
How Many People Are Homeless in the United States?
The exact number is elusive. That's because the figures can vary significantly depending on the method taken to collect the data and when the data are gathered (for example, a single night vs. a calendar year).
We do have some estimates, though. In Jan. 2015, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the U.S. Of that figure, 206,286 were people in families, while 358,422 were individuals.
Based on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report, 1.56 million people, or one in 200 Americans, experienced homelessness and found shelter from Oct. 1, 2008-Sept. 30, 2009.
What Are the Causes of Homelessness?
Based on a 2015 report produced by the United States Conference of Mayors, a lack of affordable housing and poverty are the leading causes of overall homelessness. This is true for both homeless families and unaccompanied individuals.
Unemployment and low-paying jobs are chief reasons for homelessness among families with children. Ranking causes for homelessness among individuals are mental illness and substance abuse, with a lack of needed services for both.
The least likely cause of homelessness is prisoner reentry (release from incarceration), which shatters the myth that many homeless people are likely to be criminals. Homeless people actually commit less violent crimes than housed people, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Who Is at Increased Risk for Homelessness?
People who are living in poverty are at greatest risk of becoming homeless. Demographic groups that are more apt to face poverty are also more vulnerable to homelessness.
Veterans are also at greater risk for becoming homeless, as compared to adults in the general population. About 1.4 million veterans may be subject to homelessness as a result of poverty, poor support networks, and substandard living conditions and housing, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Who Is Homeless?
The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress characterized a sheltered homeless person as male, white or African-American, age 24 or older, and alone. The report further indicated that chronically homeless individuals represented 15 percent (84,291 people), unaccompanied youth and children 7.8 percent (45,205 people), and chronically homeless families 3 percent (15,143 people) of the total homeless population.
The notion that all homeless people are unemployed is false. An article entitled "Why Don't Homeless People Just Get Jobs?" stated that "one third to one half of the homeless population is employed."
Homelessness is largely concentrated in central cities. Seventy-one percent of total homelessness occurs in urban areas, 21 percent in suburban areas, and 9 percent in rural areas.
How Can We Put an End to Homelessness?
Creating affordable housing and expanding housing assistance programs are two immediate solutions. The State of Homelessness in America 2015 report concluded: "Mainstream low-income assistance programs should be attentive to households' living situations and help maintain housing stability whenever possible and, more importantly, communities, states, and the federal government should urgently prioritize investment in affordable housing,"
In 2010, the Obama administration released an ambitious plan to end homelessness. Called Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, the plan's main goals are to halt and eradicate child and family homelessness in 10 years and to prevent and eliminate chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years. Since its inception, the program has reduced homelessness among veterans by 33 percent, chronic homelessness by 21 percent, and family homelessness by 15 percent.
Community-based efforts have also made inroads in stemming the tide of homelessness. Christina Mainero, MBA/MPH, has direct experience working with these populations. According to Mainero:
"The Illumination Foundation is but one example of a non-profit organization that has established a strong network of public and private partners throughout the community. These partners worked together to break the cycle of homelessness by bringing medical care and wrap-around services to homeless children and families as they transitioned toward independent living and self-sufficiency."
Mainero adds, "I learned more from the families and children I worked with than I could hope to fully express. My interaction with these individuals has strengthened my belief that the human spirit, like the human body, is simultaneously exceedingly resilient and incredibly fragile. To be human is to be both a strong and a vulnerable creature."
During Pope Francis' visit to the U.S. in 2015, the pontiff made a historic speech to Congress at Saint Patrick's Church in Washington, DC. In a moving appeal to lawmakers, the pontiff said, "We can find no social or moral justification, no justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing."
Safe, affordable housing is a fundamental human right, and as such, it should be upheld.