Homelessness at an all-time high

Homelessness is a massive issue in the United States of America, and it is worsening. According to Mercy Housing, a minimum of 567,715 people in the U.S. were homeless in Jan. 2019.

Tipping Point Community is a nonprofit organization that strives to combat poverty in the Bay Area of California. Luisa Montes, the communications manager at Tipping Point Community, explained the most significant challenge with fighting homelessness.

“The biggest thing that I think about when it comes to homelessness as an issue is that it is very complex and there is not one way to think about it or to define it," Montes said. "For the 8,000 people that are experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, there are also 8,000 stories of how that started and why they ended up experiencing homelessness like they do."

“Homelessness affects everyone's quality of life. It’s not a natural human reaction to walk by and ignore people that are residing on our streets or staying in places that aren’t meant for human habitation. I think it makes everyone uncomfortable to have people living that way.” -Sarah Hunter, senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation

The Effect on Society

The impact of homelessness is not restricted to any person or group; it impacts everyone, regardless of their living situation.

“Homelessness affects everyone's quality of life. It’s not a natural human reaction to walk by and ignore the people that are residing on our streets or are staying in places that aren’t meant for human habitation. I think it makes everyone uncomfortable to have people living that way,” said Sarah Hunter, a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND Corporation.

Despite being an acquaintance or a newcomer, a stranger's homelessness can have a vast impact on any person.

“If we think of ourselves as connected in the community and as caring people, the fact that somebody is sleeping on the sidewalk and a park bench absolutely affects me as a person,” Montes said.

Factors That Contribute to Homelessness

A wide variety of factors can induce homelessness. Hearts for Homeless is an organization in the Bay Area of California that aims to aid and empower homeless people and help them find a home. Jack Fuller, the CEO of Hearts for Homeless, listed a few potential factors.

“Some of the basic reasons that people are homeless are that they have lost a job, or they might have alcohol or drug abuse problems, or they might have been evicted from their apartment, and they just can’t simply afford rent,” Fuller said.

Another major cause of homelessness is the inability to meet the cost of living. Many average paying jobs do not satisfy the rent of larger cities.

“There is no major city in the United States where a person on minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. So imagine you're a single mom, working a minimum wage job; your options are really, really limited,” Montes said.

Having engagement in criminal activity is another factor that can cause homelessness.

“Another issue that comes up is involvement in the criminal justice system. So once somebody leaves jail or leaves prison, it’s hard for them to find housing. There are some barriers that landlords have that they won’t rent to people who have a history of criminal justice involvement, who’ve been in jail or prison, so that’s a major factor too,” Montes said.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Homelessness

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a considerable impact on homelessness. Fuller expresses his fear of increasing homelessness rates in the U.S.

“I am definitely worried that homelessness rates may continue to grow and it’s already showing up quite severely and that is of course with COVID-19, which has really put a strain on the homeless population,” Fuller said. “ I think the homeless population is going to be growing and we really have to find ways to help with that. It’s not a good thing.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also modified temporary housing and how shelters can operate.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely affected homelessness. Oftentimes people who are experiencing homelessness would go to a temporary shelter to have a roof over their head and get access to a meal, a shower, a hygiene kit. It’s been harder for those shelters to operate since COVID-19 because oftentimes they were big rooms with cots in them and because COVID-19 is so easy to transmit, those shelters have had to redesign and not allow as many people to stay in them and it’s reduced the number of temporary shelters that people have available to them,” Hunter said.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has put an immense strain on the homeless population and their resources, such as shelters and public rest stops. Also for people experiencing homelessness, they often have used public places to charge their phones, go to the bathroom, and just rest. So they might go to libraries, cafes, things like that and many of those have been closed,” Hunter said.

“There is no major city in the United States where a person on minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. So imagine you're a single mom, working a minimum wage job, your options are really; really limited.” -Luisa Montes

Interaction With the Homeless

Although there is no rule book on how to interact with homeless people, Montes provided a few suggestions and a basic understanding of how to do so.

“There are definitely wrong ways to interact with people experiencing homelessness. That is to throw away their belongings or ignore them on the street. I think at the very least, recognizing the humanity in everybody is a great way to start and saying ‘hello’ or saying ‘good morning’ and making eye contact. Also, asking if they need a meal or anything like that,” Montes said. “As for giving money, it’s completely a personal choice, there are some people who say ‘Well, I’d rather give to the organizations that are helping them… but as long as the money is given to meet a basic a need, that is definitely one way to help.”

Misconceptions and prejudice are among the many strifes that homeless people endure. Fuller outlined the stigma that homeless people often face.

“Some people are a little bit afraid or nervous to interact with homeless people and they have this built up stigma that a homeless person is not a good person or maybe that they created their problem themselves, and that’s just not true,” Fuller said. “We [Hearts for Homeless] offer self-empowerment programs because we want to try and help the homeless person create a better sense of their own self-worth.”

Homelessness in the United States Compared to Other Countries

Aside from its appearance in the U.S., homelessness is also prevalent around the world. Hunter contrasts homelessness in the U.S. with other homelessness in other countries.

“The rates of homelessness in the U.S. are higher than other Western countries and that’s primarily because we don’t have the same social safety net. We don’t have the benefits for people who are living in poverty, so if you don't have a job, you don’t have a home, you don't have any income, then you don’t have very many resources. Where in other countries the government would step in and provide you with income, they may provide you with a home, things of that nature,” Hunter said.

A majority of Montes’s family comes from the Philippines. She anecdotally contrasted the homelessness of the U.S. to the Philippines.

“While there is a lot of poverty in the Philippines, homelessness looks a little different because there’s just a sense of duty to your family, so you would never put someone out on the street if you couldn’t … That’s pretty anecdotal,” Montes said.

How Homelessness Affects the Homeless

The most well-known effect of homelessness is the lack of a home. Yet, there are many more impacts that homelessness has on a person. Montes explained the impact on homeless people when their basic needs are not fulfilled.

“As individuals, it’s hard to focus when you’re hungry, when you’re tired, or when you can’t get your basic needs met,” Montes said. “If a person experiencing homelessness is hungry or tired or hasn’t had their basic needs met, it’s really hard to move on to that next stage, like finding a job or trying to apply for an apartment.”

Homelessness can also take a severe toll on mental health.

According to Harvard Medical School, between a quarter to a third of the homeless population have a serious mental illness, which is typically schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression. The proportion of the homeless population with mental illnesses is continuing to grow.

Racial Disparities in Homelessness

An additional conflict in homelessness is racial discrimination and bias.

“There is a lot of racial disparity and discrimination when it comes to getting black and brown folks housed in our city [San Francisco] and across the country,” Montes said.

A significant portion of racial discrimination of the homeless population is directed towards people of color.

“Black people experience homelessness at higher rates than any other demographic… of people who are experiencing homelessness, 34% of them are Black. But when you look at the city of San Francisco, Black people only count for 6% of the population. So it’s really skewed in terms of the numbers and it’s really a testament to the fact that discrimination in housing, jobs, and the criminal justice world has really negatively impacted the Black community and how that has led to them experiencing homelessness at higher rates,” Montes said.

Actions Being Taken to Aid the Homeless

Among many other organizations, Hearts for Homeless has developed new programs to aid the homeless. Fuller illuminated the latest program that has been designed at Hearts for Homeless.

“In our program MESA (Mental and Emotional Support Advocate), we bring in volunteers and train them how to help the homeless and we match them up with a homeless person so they’ll have, essentially a one-on-one connection. Normally the homeless people are very, very excited to have somebody that’s there to work with them that they can trust,” Fuller said. “We are feeling with our MESA program that we can be in contact with the caseworkers and help them give a lot more attention to the homeless person to hopefully help them get through the problems that they have and put them on a road where they can become permanently housed.”

MESA is an example of a modern program designed to help the homeless. However, someone who can't volunteer their time through a program can also help via donations. Hunter advises how and where to donate money.

“A great way to help the homeless is to find a nonprofit serving the homeless in your community and you can either volunteer your time to help or if you have money, you can give the organization money to buy supplies for people who are homeless,” Hunter said.

A Perspective from Experience

Kaitlyn White, a sophomore at Redwood High School, shared the story of her best friend’s battle with homelessness as a middle school student.

“My friend’s mom got laid off from her job and they couldn’t pay for their apartment anymore. They got evicted and they were homeless for about 1.5 years; it was a pretty long time,” White said.

Aside from interfering with life as a whole, being homeless as a teenager disrupts one's education.

“Being homeless really impacted their schooling. When this was going on, they slept over at my house a lot, and we studied together so they wouldn’t get too caught behind; it was kind of hard for them to keep up if they didn’t even have a home," White said.

White described how being homeless jolted her friend’s social life, too.

“When my friend was homeless, a lot of my friends decided not to be friends with them anymore and I found that very said,” White said. “Honestly, we treated them just like how we treated them before and I found it really sad that people decided not to. Not only did they struggle with keeping up their grades, but they also struggled to keep up their social life. I and a couple of other people were their only friends because of this. But, after a while, they were able to get their apartment again after her mom got a new job.”

Overall, homelessness is a severe crisis in the U.S., and it has reached an all-time high.

According to Harvard Medical School, roughly 2 million people are homeless at some time in any given year.

“Homelessness affects everyone and we need to put an end to it before it gets any worse,” Fuller said.

Image Credits:

"A homeless camp in Eugene, Oregon, 2013" / Visitor7 / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 and “Tents of the homeless on the sidewalk in Skid Row, Los Angeles, 2018” / Russ Allison Loar / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0

Created By
Maya Brazil