Too Big to Fail? Homelessness Increases as Help Decreases

It's a crisis that touches on the basic values on which the nation stands. Anyone can lose their job, especially during a recession. Do we really want to say that no help will be forthcoming?
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A report released yesterday confirmed startling increases in homelessness nationally. It's the second report to do so in the past month. These findings should come as a wake-up call to anyone who cares about the fundamental values on which our country is founded.

The report, "The State of Homelessness in America," issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, assembles data that show that from 2008 to 2009, homelessness in general increased by 3 percent, and homelessness among families increased by 4 percent. Given that the economic recession and foreclosure crises were already in full swing by then, this may not seem like an unexpected increase.

But here's the catch: The Alliance numbers capture only a very narrowly defined slice of homelessness: People in shelters or other emergency housing, or in public places. In addition to these increases, the number of families living doubled-up with others due to economic necessity increased by 12 percent to more than 6 million. The increases documented in the Alliance report parallel those reported by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in December 2010, which found a 9 percent increase in family homelessness over the past year in the 27 cities it surveyed across the country.

The report doesn't classify this group as homeless, but many organizations, including the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, do. So does the U.S. Department of Education as it determines when children are homeless. For the people affected, the difference between a spot on a friend's couch or floor and a shelter or park bench is significant -- albeit short-lived. As the report notes, doubling up is a typical route to so-called "literal" homelessness: The report estimates that one in 10 of those who are doubled-up will eventually find themselves in shelters or on the streets.

Regardless of what we call it, the increase in doubling up makes a couple of things clear: First, homelessness is part of a larger continuum, and it is affecting an increasingly broader part of the U.S. population. Both new reports pointed to job loss and the foreclosure crisis as major causes of the recent dramatic increases, a trend that the Law Center has been tracking. As both trends continue to sweep across the country, the numbers of people affected will almost certainly increase, and the suffering of those already affected deepen.

The other clear and even more disturbing point is this: Despite the enormity of the current crisis, there is virtually no safety net in place to help those affected. According to federal government data, some 40 percent of all homeless people are unsheltered due to lack of resources. The U.S. Conference of Mayors' report states that in the cities they surveyed an average of 27 percent of requests for emergency shelter went unmet. In some communities, there are now waiting lists for emergency shelter.

What's more, the already enormous gap is likely to worsen, as need increases and funding cuts at all levels of government continue to decimate safety net programs, from food assistance, to housing, to legal aid, to shelter. It's no exaggeration to say that the depth of need, in a country that has the resources to meet it, is a human rights crisis right here at home.

It's a crisis that touches on the basic values on which the nation stands. Anyone can lose their job, especially during a recession. What happens after unemployment benefits run out? What happens when the rent or mortgage is overdue and there's no money to pay it? What happens when there are no family or friends who can help? Do we really want to say that no help will be forthcoming?

Last year, our country spent hundreds of billions of dollars to save banks that were considered "too big to fail." Now the conventional wisdom in Washington is that there's "no money" to help ordinary people who are suffering in poverty and homelessness. But providing massive government intervention to protect big business while slashing government supports meant to mitigate the impacts of the economy's vicissitudes truly turns basic principles of a "free market" economy on their head. Why does anyone accept this?

Homelessness can and must be ended. But to do so requires a paradigm shift that says that American ideals of basic economic and social justice are too big to fail. It requires saying that we will not tolerate homelessness in America. It requires a commitment to the principle that in a country as wealthy as ours, everyone should have a place to call home.

Want to read more? Take a look at today's (1/13/11) top Huffington Post story: "The New Face of Homelessness,"and "Unemployment, Housing Prices Forced More Families To 'Double Up' in 2009" in the business section.

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