Homelessness: America's Refugee Crisis

Back home in Los Angeles, where homelessness has increased by 12 percent, the sprawling tent cities of America's homeless remind me of the desperate refugees half a world away.
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Their stories are heartbreaking. Dozens drowning when their tiny boats capsize off the coast of Turkey. Desperate crowds shouting for entry at the borders of safe countries. A small boy sprawled on a beach, lifeless.

They are the refugees spewing out of war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Their destination is Europe, where they can safely raise their families and live their lives.

An estimated 3 million people have fled from Syria alone, with another 6.5 million more people displaced within the country's borders. Their way stations are refugee camps--sprawling temporary tent cities--along the way.

And just when safer nations started to close their borders to these frantic refugees, the image of that drowned Syrian boy moved (or perhaps shamed?) the people of the north to open their borders.

Back home in Los Angeles, where homelessness has increased by 12 percent, the sprawling tent cities of America's homeless remind me of the desperate refugees half a world away. Exhausted, sick, and somber people residing in tents on sidewalks, many of whom have given up hoping to escape the streets.

Perhaps those of us who are housed should consider these neighbors, who have no homes, refugees within our own country.

Many within our homeless population are fleeing from violence, in the form of abusive spouses or families. Many have fled from their old lives because of a non-existent economy that can't provide them with a decent livelihood.

And, yes, some living on our streets are still running from the memories of war. The explosions. The sleepless nights. The killing.

Ironically, the response to these domestic refugees is similar, too. "Not in my backyard!" is the mantra whenever homelessness encroaches too near those who are housed.

But maybe, if we look at those who are homeless as the refugees they often are, we would welcome them into our neighborhoods instead.

In recent years, our community has embraced permanent housing as the solution to resolving homelessness. This is certainly the long-term answer. But, as in any refugee crisis, we also need a short-term solution to support people are fleeing violence, economic despair, or war.

We need refugee camps, also known as homeless shelters.

Perhaps these homeless refugee camps are not typical shelters, with rows and rows of bunk beds. They might consist of temporary stays in motels, church fellowship halls, or shelters created for a limited time.

But, just as refugees will continue to flee war-torn countries until the violence stops, we will continue to have a homelessness crisis until we fix the problems that put people on the streets.

Here in America, we need to fix an economy that doesn't provide the working poor with wages that allow them to afford basic housing. We need to fix a health system that allows people struggling with extreme mental health issues to languish on our streets. We need to support our veterans when they return home, and our foster youth when they become adults.

Because when these root causes are fixed, people no longer need to flee. We will no longer need to build specialized housing, shelters, or feeding stations.

If homelessness was viewed as a refugee problem, perhaps our community would respond differently.

But I hope it will not take a homeless child found lifeless on the streets to move us to act.

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