Opinion

Ending the Cycle of Homelessness

By | Mar 23, 2015

Cycle-homelessnessFor the past five years, the federal government has been implementing a courageous and visionary initiative to end homelessness for this country’s veterans, chronically homeless individuals, and families. This plan has changed the paradigm as to how communities approach their homeless populations.

Everyone involved in addressing homelessness has been influenced by this plan – public officials, non-governmental organization leaders, foundation heads, and government leaders. The fact that this country has redefined the work of homelessness by calling an end to it, rather than managing the status quo, is admirable.

The work of ending homelessness has been extraordinary.

For instance, our communities have been scrambling to get federal housing vouchers that will help people pay rent for apartment units. We have been reallocating homeless dollars from traditional emergency and transitional programs to permanent housing programs. We are working toward coordinating how we assess people who are homeless and how we link them to permanent housing.

It is all great work. Thousands of people have been housed.

But what if we house 50,000 people and another 50,000 (who used to be living in homes and apartments) become homeless? In other words, what if we take 50,000 people off the streets, but a new group of 50,000 people become homeless?

Are we just back where we started?

Eleanor Goldberg examined this very issue around the number of homeless people in Seattle. Specifically, she looked at the number of people experiencing homelessness before and after the city had implemented their “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness.” In 2005, Pacific Northwest County reported there were 8,000 people who were homeless (both sheltered and unsheltered) in King County. Last year, they counted 9,294 people who were homeless (3,123 people were unsheltered). This year, ten years later, the unsheltered number was 3,772, a 21 percent increase.

Seattle, like most large cities in America, has embraced best practices in their mission to end homelessness. Yet, even after ten years of the Ten-Year Plan, the struggle to end homelessness continues.

An important fact, which is often overlooked, is that in order to end homelessness it is important to focus on its root causes.

Homelessness, as we currently know it, did not begin until the 1980s. Fifty years ago, when one thought of homelessness in the United States, an image of mostly men—jumping from train to train, city to city, and ending up in urban centers—is what would come to mind. At that time, a stereotypical family (like the fictional family on the TV hit show, “Father Knows Best”) could make do with only one parent working and another staying home.

Today, however, that American Dream of one working parent and a suburban home with a white picket fence is more of a pipe dream.

Why? Because the average wage today cannot pay for the median rent of an apartment. Just look at New York City. The state minimum wage provides less than $1,500 per month; yet, the median rent in The Big Apple is $2,700.

Not every big city has these extremely divergent economic indicators. But, like New York City, most American cities’ rents are increasing while wages are low or remain stagnant. This is a recipe for increased homelessness.

It seems to me that if average American wages are not high enough to pay for the average rent—in the long run, all of our efforts to house those who are currently homeless will not end homelessness. We will simply be treading water.