The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world on a per capita basis. The nation’s current annual GDP is trending at more than $19 trillion for 2018 with a population of around 325 million people.
Despite this significant wealth, an increasing number of people in the country are experiencing homelessness. According to an article published in December 2017 by the BBC, last year marked the first time in seven years that the number of people identifying as homeless in the U.S. increased.
There are different definitions of what it means to be homeless. However, the definition used by government-funded health centers in America includes anyone “without permanent housing who may live on the streets; stay in a shelter, mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building, or vehicle; or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation.” It also often includes people who are staying in the residences of a series of friends or extended family without stable housing of their own.
Homelessness is associated with a number of negative physical, emotional, and psychological side effects. These include food insecurity, domestic violence, disease, substance abuse and mental illness, among other issues.
Unfortunately, advocates focused on addressing the problem of homelessness anticipate that the number of Americans affected by this issue will only continue to grow. If the U.S. wishes to put an end to the crisis of homelessness, the country must address the following three national problems.
Limited Housing Availability
The U.S. is currently experiencing a serious, nation-wide affordable housing crisis. It is affecting residents in both urban areas and rural ones. Decades in the making, the crisis is the result of policymaking at the local, state and federal levels as well as rising costs of living without commensurate income growth.
Existing low-cost housing is severely limited, especially in big cities, which are important centers for job opportunity. Prices for existing homes are on the rise across the nation. Additionally, new home construction is stagnant. These factors are leading to high market demand for homes, further escalating prices for both homebuyers and renters.
To end homelessness, the U.S. must make a large, private-public commitment to invest in low-income housing. The number of people who are experiencing homelessness in the U.S. grew sharply in the wake of drastic cuts to federal funds for public housing in the 1980s and has only grown since that time. A national agreement to provide accessible housing opportunities for those with low income levels is the most important first step toward making sure every American has a safe place to sleep and create a home.
Poor Social Connectivity and Awareness
Throughout U.S. history, the collective attitude about individuals who experience homelessness has been notoriously negative. Social discord stemming from the tension between those who have permanent living situations and those who are homeless within the same area often manifests in the form of harsh newspaper editorials, rigid anti-vagrancy laws or altercations.
Community support for social programs benefiting individuals who are homeless has increased in recent years. However, a study published in 2016 suggests negative feelings propel residents of these same communities to actively work against the aid they mean to offer. Negative stereotypes can motivate people to vote in favor of policies excluding people experiencing homelessness from everyday life in the community and to further isolate them from the tools they need to improve their situation.
To end homelessness in America, its citizens must be more widely educated on the causes of homelessness, the people who experience it and what can be done to curb its occurrence. Destigmatizing homelessness is crucial to overcoming the harmful “us” and “them” mentality that pervades many U.S. communities in which homelessness occurs.
Further, steps must be taken to foster interpersonal connection and inclusion in local communities. That way, when a person does overcome homelessness, the social support necessary to sustain that success is already in place.
Inadequate Mental Health Services and Prevention Programs
The reasons individuals transition into homelessness are almost always multifaceted. However, many people experiencing homelessness have similar life experiences or struggle with similar problems prior to losing their residences.
According to research presented by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the top four primary causes of homelessness for unaccompanied individuals are, in descending order: a lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty and untreated mental illness. To successfully reduce homelessness, the U.S. must help citizens address these issues early on, before they overwhelm their lives and cause the loss of housing.
The U.S. needs more interventional finance and counseling services for people who are on the brink of homelessness, such as those provided by nonprofits Pathways Housing First and Critical Time. The country must also address the need for more proactive healthcare for people struggling with mental illness.
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, serious mental health conditions can often make it difficult for a person to adequately conduct day-to-day affairs, maintain positive or lasting interpersonal relationships or care for themselves physically. Without a strong plan to provide real support to people living with these conditions, the crisis of homelessness is one that we can expect each generation to battle.