Facts about Being Homeless in USA
by Bill Quigley
Renee Delisle was one of over 3500 homeless people in Santa Cruz when she found out she was pregnant. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported she was turned away from a shelter because they did not have space for her. While other homeless people slept in cars or under culverts, Renee ended up living in an abandoned elevator shaft until her water broke.
Jerome Murdough, 56, a homeless former Marine, was arrested for trespass in New York because he was found sleeping in a public housing stairwell on a cold night. The New York Times reported that one week later, Jerome died of hypothermia in a jail cell heated to over 100 degrees.
Paula Corb and her two daughters lost their home and have lived in their minivan for four years. They did laundry in a church annex, went to the bathroom at gas stations, and did their studies under street lamps, according to America Tonight.
Fact One. Over half a million people are homeless
On any given night, there are over 600,000 homeless people in the US according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Most people are either spending the night in homeless shelters or in some sort of short term transitional housing. Slightly more than a third are living in cars, under bridges or in some other way living unsheltered.
Fact Two. One quarter of homeless people are children
HUD reports that on any given night over 138,000 of the homeless in the US are children under the age of 18. Thousands of these homeless children are unaccompanied according to HUD. Another federal program, No Child Left Behind, defines homeless children more broadly and includes not just those living in shelters or transitional housing but also those who are sharing the housing of other persons due to economic hardship, living in cars, parks, bus or train stations, or awaiting foster care placement. Under this definition, the National Center for Homeless Education reported in September 2014 that local school districts reported there are over one million homeless children in public schools.
Fact Three. Tens of thousands of veterans are homeless
Over 57,000 veterans are homeless each night. Sixty percent of them were in shelters, the rest unsheltered. Nearly 5000 are female.
Fact Four. Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness in women
More than 90% of homeless women are victims of severe physical or sexual abuse and escaping that abuse is a leading cause of their homelessness.
Fact Five. Many people are homeless because they cannot afford rent
The lack of affordable housing is a primary cause of homelessness according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. HUD has seen its budget slashed by over 50% in recent decades resulting in the loss of 10,000 units of subsidized low income housing each and every year.
Fact Six. There are fewer places for poor people to rent than before
One eighth of the nation’s supply of low income housing has been permanently lost since 2001. The US needs at least 7 million more affordable apartments for low income families and as a result millions of families spend more than half their monthly income on rent.
Fact Seven. In the last few years millions have lost their homes
Over five million homes have been foreclosed on since 2008, one out of every ten homes with a mortgage. This has caused even more people to search for affordable rental property.
Fact Eight. The Government does not help as much as you think
There is enough public rental assistance to help about one out of every four extremely low income households. Those who do not receive help are on multi-year waiting lists. For example, Charlotte just opened up their applications for public housing assistance for the first time in 14 years and over 10,000 people applied.
Fact Nine. One in five homeless people suffer from untreated severe mental illness
While about 6% of the general population suffers from severe mental illness, 20 to 25% of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness according to government studies. Half of this population self-medicate and are at further risk of addiction and poor physical health. A University of Pennsylvania study tracking nearly 5000 homeless people for two years discovered that investing in comprehensive health support and treatment of physical and mental illnesses is less costly than incarceration, shelter and hospital services for the untreated homeless.
Fact Ten. Cities are increasingly making homelessness a crime
A 2014 survey of 187 cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found: 24% make it a city-wide crime to beg in public; 33% make it illegal to stand around or loiter anyplace in the city; 18% make it a crime to sleep anywhere in public; 43% make it illegal to sleep in your car; and 53% make it illegal to sit or lay down in particular public places. And the number of cities criminalizing homelessness is steadily increasing.
For more information look to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the National Center for Homeless Education and the National Coalition on the Homeless.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License
Bill Quigley is Associate Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a Katrina survivor and has been active in human rights in Haiti for years. He volunteers with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Bureau de Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Port au Prince. Contact Bill at email@example.com
Poverty and Homelessness are Human and Civil Rights Issues
by James Abro
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution. In it he defined and popularized the concept of “paradigm shift”. Kuhn argues that scientific advancement is not evolutionary, but a “series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions”, and in those revolutions “one conceptual world view is replaced by another”.
I feel that we need a paradigm shift in how we perceive the problems of poverty and homelessness and that it is time, right now, for an intellectually violent revolution.
We can start by no longer calling efforts to address poverty a ‘War on Poverty’. However well-intentioned that phrase might have been in its original use, it has come to mean something else entirely over time. A war on poverty now implies that poverty, and the poor, are enemies we must overcome as a society.
In an article published this week by TalkPoverty called How We Punish People for Being Poor Rebecca Vallas points out the sundry ways our society blithely exploits the poor. There are also news reports every day depicting how we harass, fine, incarcerate and abuse people for the ‘crime’ of being poor.
But these articles and reports do not address the underlying issue of why our society feels it has the right to punish people for being poor.
Rather than point out the reasons for that, and analyzing them – we need a paradigm shift away from the attitudes and beliefs that allow these kinds of abuses to take place as a matter of course.
So how do we do this? We need to start by viewing and treating poverty and homelessness as what they are: human and civil rights issues.
We’ve seen this happen before: Blacks were characterized as inferior to Whites (and treated that way); women were thought of as window dressing for men’s lives (and treated that way); and LGBT people were dismissed as abnormal (and treated that way).
Nothing fundamentally changed in how we viewed these groups of persons until we started recognizing them as fully human, entitled to the same human and constitutional rights as anyone else.
The same has to happen now with the poor. Here are my specific recommendations:
Decriminalize homelessness. But don’t stop there; let’s make it a criminal offense, a hate crime, for anyone caught abusing the poor and homeless just for being poor or homeless.
A national Housing First mandate. Housing is the humane and dignified solution to homelessness, not isolating, abusing, fining and imprisoning.
Do whatever it takes to force every state to accept Medicaid expansion. Basic healthcare is a human right; not something that should be denied for short-sighted political reasons.
Well, I’d like to stop right there. One of the problems of trying to address poverty and homelessness is there are so many sub-issues one can get lost in them all and end up accomplishing nothing.
This Friday, October 10th, marks World Homeless Action Day. Let’s observe it by beginning to recognize poverty and homelessness as conditions of human existence—protected by moral and civil law—and not as social abnormalities that need to be warred against psychologically, emotionally and physically.
© 2014 TalkPoverty.org
James Abro is the author of An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, a personal memoir of homelessness and recovery. He is the founder of Advocate for Economic Fairness and 32 Beach Productions. He works locally with faith-based Homeless Outreach groups, and nationally as an advocate for Homeless Rights. He is a regular contributor to Rebelle Society and TalkPoverty.
We Must Help Our Nation's Homeless Children Get an Education
by Catherine Meek Executive Director of School on Wheels
Frankie is nine years old. He has a rash all over his face and body -- stress-related said the doctor. He has trouble focusing on his homework and paying attention in school; he has fights in the schoolyard; he has serious mood swings; he has no friends. He lives with his mother and two sisters in one room in a homeless shelter. Frankie is one of our students.
The devastating impact of homelessness on children has become starkly clear from decades of study. While poverty alone creates health, developmental, behavioral, and educational problems for children, homelessness compounds these problems by adding additional stress, fear, anxiety and instability to children's lives. Can you imagine how hard it is to learn when you don't have a home? The statistics stacked against homeless students are staggering:
These are troubling times, especially for children. More and more children are falling through the cracks and facing hunger, homelessness and abuse. I'm not sure when the clichéd picture of homelessness will change, but the drug-addicted man with the cardboard sign panhandling on the streets does not represent the vast majority of homeless people in America. In fact, families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one out of every 50 children in this country faces homelessness each year. That's correct, one out of every 50.
Homelessness is extreme poverty. Lack of affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment -- the top three causes of family homelessness -- will not diminish any time soon. And when kids become homeless, their education suffers immensely. Coupled with huge cuts in education budgets, spineless politicians who worry more about the NRA than they do about children, our homeless children are less and less likely to get any kind of education. How can a seven-year-old child learn when she has not slept the night before because she's scared and hungry and doesn't know where she'll sleep that night? How can we expect a 15-year-old to care about graduating when he has to study in a closet because the shelter lights have been turned off?
What is more important for a child than learning? What is more important for a country than educated citizens? Our students persevere every day against seemingly insurmountable odds. Despite desperate living conditions, hunger and other unimaginable challenges, our students show us courage, resilience and determination in their pursuit of education. We should show them the same courage.
It's time we all reached out to kids like Frankie and showed them compassion and kindness instead of punishment and penalties for being poor.
for Being Poor
by Rebecca Vallas
This past weekend, I was part of a panel discussion on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry with New York Times reporter Michael Corkery, whose reporting on the rise in subprime auto loans is as horrifying as it is important.
In what seems a reprisal of the predatory practices that led up to the subprime mortgage crisis, low-income individuals are being sold auto loans at twice the actual value of the car, with interest rates as high as 29 percent. They can end up with monthly payments of $500—more than most of the borrowers spend on food in a month, and certainly more than most can realistically afford. Many dealers appear in essence to be setting up low-income borrowers to fail.
Dealers are also making use of a new collection tool called a “starter-interrupter device” that allows them not only to track a borrower’s movements through GPS, but to shut off a car with the tap of a smartphone—which many dealers do even just one or two days after a borrower misses a payment. One Nevada woman describes the terrifying experience of having her car shut off while driving on the freeway. And repossession of their cars is far from the end of the line for many borrowers; they can be chased for months and even years afterward to pay down the remainder of the loan.
Predatory subprime auto loans are just the latest in a long line of policies and practices that make it expensive to be poor—something I saw every day representing low-income clients as a legal aid attorney.
Low-income individuals are much more likely to be hit by bank fees, such as monthly maintenance fees if their checking account falls below a required minimum balance—balances as high as $1,500 at leading banks such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo—not to mention steep overdraft fees. For the more than 10 million U.S. households who lack a bank account, check cashers charge fees as high as 5 percent. This may not sound like much, but consider a low-income worker who takes home around $1,500 per month: She’d pay $75 just to cash her paychecks. Add in the cost of money orders—which she’ll need to pay her rent and other bills—and we’re talking about $1,000 per year just for financial services.
Whether or not they have a bank account, very few low-income families have emergency savings, and more than two-thirds report that they’d be unable to come up with $2,000 in 30 days in the event of an emergency expense such as a broken water heater or unexpected medical bill. Out of options, many turn to payday loans for needed cash. Jon Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, gave this important issue perhaps the best treatment I’ve seen in some time, detailing how families who turn to predatory payday loans can end up trapped in an inescapable cycle of debt at 400 percent annual interest.
Then there’s the rent-to-own industry. Through weekly installments, low-income families with bad credit or no credit can end up paying as much as two and a half times the actual cost of household basics like a washer and dryer set, or a laptop for their teen to do his homework.
Grocery shopping can bring added costs too. For families who can’t afford to buy in bulk, the savings Costco offers are out of reach. And for those without a car, living in low-income neighborhoods without a convenient supermarket, it’s either cab or bus fare to haul groceries back, or swallowing the markup at the neighborhood corner store.
And then there’s the issue of time. Something I heard about frequently from my clients when I was in legal aid was how much extra time everything takes when you’re poor. Many told of taking three buses to work and back, and spending as many as five hours in transit to get to and from their jobs every day. Those who needed to turn to public assistance to make ends meet would describe waiting at the welfare office all day long simply to report a change in their income.
Also worth noting is the criminalization of poverty and the high costs that result. In a nationwide trend documented by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a growing number of states and cities have laws on the books that may seem neutral—prohibiting activities such as sidewalk-sitting, public urination, and “aggressive panhandling”—but which really target the homeless. (The classic Anatole France quote comes to mind: “The law in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”)
Arresting a homeless person for public urination when there are no public bathroom facilities is not only a poor use of law enforcement resources, it also sets in motion a vicious cycle: The arrested individual will be unable to afford bail, as well as any fees levied as punishment, and nonpayment of those fees may then land him back in jail.
In an extreme example, in the state of Arkansas, missing a rent payment is a criminal offense. If a tenant is even one day late with the rent, his landlord can legally evict him—and if the tenant isn’t out in 10 days, he can wind up in jail.
In yet another penny-wise and pound-foolish trend, states and localities are increasingly relying on enforcement of traffic violations—as well as fines and fees levied on individuals involved with the criminal justice system—as sources of revenue. In Ferguson, Missouri, the city relied on rising municipal court fines to make up a whopping 20 percent of its $12.75 million budget in 2013. Ability to pay is often ignored when it comes to these types of fines and fees, leaving individuals stuck in a cycle of debt long after they’ve paid their debt to society. While debtor’s prison was long ago declared unconstitutional, failure to pay can be a path back to jail in many states.
It’s good to see the New York Times, Melissa Harris-Perry, and others paying attention to these injustices. But that’s just the first step. If we are truly interested in building an America that is defined by opportunity, we must commit to enacting public policies that support rather than impede upward mobility.
Rebecca Vallas is the Associate Director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.