The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Economic Hardship Causing Drastic Increase in US Homelessness

by Madeleine Baran

Activists working to address a growing homelessness crisis say that numbers showing a dramatic rise in requests for emergency housing and food only tell part of the story.

Sept. 12, 2004 – Alarmed by sharp increases in the number of homeless in the US, many leading advocates for the homeless say the country’s housing system is in crisis, and that the lives of millions of homeless men, women and children hang in the balance.

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Recent national surveys indicate that low wages, unemployment and skyrocketing medical expenses have contributed to an almost unprecedented increase in the number of homeless individuals and families in the past two to three years. Advocates say only a massive federal program can correct the problem. Armed with new legislation, they are fighting back against Bush administration proposals to restructure housing voucher programs and reduce funding levels for the nation’s neediest individuals.

In the last three years, the number of people requesting emergency housing and food assistance has increased drastically, according to surveys of 25 major cities conducted annually by the US Conference of Mayors.

In 2003, the survey found that requests for emergency housing increased by thirteen percent on average, following a nineteen percent increase in 2002, a thirteen percent increase in 2001, and a fifteen percent increase in 2000. In 1997, by comparison, the increase was just 3 percent.

In addition, as more families and children become homeless each year, decades-old homeless demographics are slowly changing. In 1990 the Mayors’ survey noted that single men accounted for 51 percent of all homeless. Families with children trailed at 34 percent, followed by single women at twelve percent. In 2003 single men made up just 41 percent of the homeless. Families with children accounted for 40 percent, and single women, 14 percent.

Homeless people’s advocates say that the documented homeless numbers, as disturbing as they are, underestimate the magnitude of the problem.

Sameika Cochran, who became homeless after fleeing an abusive former boyfriend used to think homelessness happened only to drug addicts and those lacking basic education -- until she and her four children became homeless. Now she lives in a shelter in Maplewood, Minnesota, while she searches for childcare and housing assistance. "I’m a very educated person in a tight spot," said Cochran, who is 23 years old. "When people think of the homeless, they think of these stereotypes of dirty, nasty, stupid people. But everyone [can have a] downfall."

Homeless people’s advocates say that the documented homeless numbers, as disturbing as they are, underestimate the magnitude of the problem. Both the Mayors’ survey and the Urban Institute’s report use data collected from social service providers and government agencies. Homeless people who do not seek out assistance are almost never counted in national surveys.

The National Coalition for the Homeless, a Washington, DC-based advocacy organization, argues that such methods leave out most homeless people. A 1994 study of people who used to be homeless conducted by Dr. Bruce Link, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, found that the overwhelming majority of homeless people do not use homeless shelters. About 59 percent of those surveyed reported living in cars. Almost 25 percent said they had lived in tents, boxes, caves, boxcars, and other makeshift housing.

Despite the variety of challenges faced by the homeless, the Mayors’ survey found that most cities list the same basic causes, including rising unemployment, low-paying jobs, high housing costs, medical expenses and the general economic downturn.

"Many people just got tired of looking for shelter and being turned away," said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "These people are always undercounted."

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, an advocacy organization, added that, while current national surveys are useful, they are "not really statistically valid" because of the lack of consistency in the way the information is collected. In the Mayors’ survey, for example, each state determines how it will supply the data.

"Still," she said, "if you add up the increase, it’s enormous."

The increased demand is hitting already financially strapped cities hard. About 30 percent of requests for emergency shelter go unmet, according to the Mayors’ survey. In addition,

40 percent of cities surveyed said they were unable to provide an "adequate quantity of food" to handle emergency requests.

Some states are reporting even larger increases in 2003. Detroit, Michigan saw a 22 percent increase in the demand for emergency shelter, while Los Angeles and Santa Monica reported increases of 15 and 25 percent respectively. Louisville, Kentucky reported the steepest increase of the 25 cities surveyed -- an astonishing 226 percent.

Many individual shelters also say they are seeing a significant spike in demand for emergency housing. Bud McRae, director of development at the Rescue Mission in Portland, Oregon, said his organization, which runs two shelters, has experienced a 5 percent increase each year for the past five to seven years. The mission opened a 96-bed women and children’s shelter in June to address increasing demand in those populations. Almost 200 women and children are already on the waiting list.

leading homeless advocates attribute the bulk of the increase to a lack of affordable housing, arguing that the strong housing market has benefited middle-class homeowners while low-income families suffer skyrocketing rental prices.

McRae anticipates that, if the economy remains stagnant, demand will further increase. "It takes some people time to fall through the cracks in the system," he said. "When most people lose their job, they don’t automatically become homeless. Shelters are a last resort."

The Interfaith Hospitality House, a shelter for families in Birmingham, Alabama, has been filled to capacity for months. "This month, I was absolutely amazed," said Betty Perry, Interfaith’s family services coordinator, explaining that she received 50 requests she could not fill, an increase of about 40 percent over previous months.

Perry, who said she also narrowly escaped homelessness herself several months ago after losing her job at another shelter, knows first-hand how stressful the search for housing can be, but she said it only makes turning people away more difficult.

"I have a family that has called every night this week, just waiting to see if I have an opening because they’re living in their car," she said. "They have to move their car every night to make sure that the police don’t get them, because they will lose their children. They keep telling me, ‘We don’t want our family on the street.’"

Homeless people also face bureaucratic hurdles in the search for emergency shelter. In order to qualify for federal assistance, they must meet the official criteria for homelessness, a narrow definition that only includes those currently living in shelters or institutions, or in uninhabitable places, like on the streets or under a bridge. The definition for child homelessness, in contrast, is much more comprehensive, and includes individuals living with friends or relatives, those awaiting foster care placement, and those living in motels, trailer parks, or camping grounds.

The differing definitions can result in a child being eligible for services for which his or her parents do not qualify. Children often end up being separated from their parents and put into foster homes. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that 60 percent of shelter residents in New York City had children who were not living with them. In Chicago, the same study found that 54 percent of the homeless were parents, but 91 percent did not have their children with them.

Despite the variety of challenges faced by the homeless, the Mayors’ survey found that most cities list the same basic causes, including rising unemployment, low-paying jobs, high housing costs, medical expenses and the general economic downturn.

Whitehead, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, estimates that 30 percent of the increase in homeless families is a direct result of the recession and welfare reform. "Many of the people who were able to access jobs through welfare reform were not able to maintain those jobs once we entered into the recession," he said. "They were the first to be replaced."

However, Whitehead and other leading homeless advocates attribute the bulk of the increase to a lack of affordable housing, arguing that the strong housing market has benefited middle-class homeowners while low-income families suffer skyrocketing rental prices.

Sheila Crowly, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said homelessness boils down to a housing problem. "It’s a musical chairs situation," she said. "There’s just not enough [low-income] spots for everybody, which means people with the least capacity end up with nothing."

A report released in 2003 by the Coalition found that an individual would have to earn at least $15.21 per hour to afford rent for an average two-bedroom unit, a 37 percent increase since 1999. "There is nothing on the horizon to cause us to think that rents will not continue to rise," the report states.

In recent months, advocates for the homeless have increased their criticism of the Bush administration, which they say has not done nearly enough to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

In particular, advocates point to President Bush’s Collaborative Initiative to Help End Chronic Homelessness as an example of the administration’s misplaced priorities. The $35 million initiative seeks to eliminate chronic homelessness by directly targeting money to those populations, instead of allowing states to administer federal aid to meet regional needs.

The US Interagency Council on the Homeless, which administers the program, defines as chronically homeless "an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years."

While advocates agree that the chronically homeless need better assistance, they argue that the program, which excludes families and most children, offers few or no new approaches to eliminating the causes of homelessness. They also say that, in certain states with few "chronically homeless" people, providers will be forced to neglect needier populations in order to receive federal funds.

"Every administration wants to put a stamp on an issue," Whitehead said. "The administration sees this as a new way to address the issue, when it’s the same way we’ve been doing it for a long time."

While advocates for the homeless celebrated a small victory recently when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reluctantly agreed to restore $156 million in cuts to the Section 8 housing voucher program after widespread public outcry, additional cuts are expected. Low-income renters in the voucher program pay 30 percent of their income toward housing. The vouchers, part of a federally funded rental assistance program, cover the rest. The program has paid a portion of the rent for nearly two million families with children, the elderly and the disabled.

The average waiting time for a Section 8 voucher in the 25 cities included in the Mayors’ survey is 27 months. Almost 50 percent of these cities have stopped accepting applications for at least one housing program because of lengthy waiting lists. Currently, only 33 percent of eligible low-income households in the cities surveyed receive assistance from housing programs.

HUD recently announced plans to fundamentally restructure the voucher program. In an August 6 New York Times op-ed piece, HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson called the program "overly prescriptive and unwieldy," and proposed a new, "flexible voucher" program. The new plan would save money, in part by switching its emphasis to serving moderately low-income families instead of those with extremely low-incomes.

Jackson reasons that HUD will cut costs because the higher-earning renters will be able to pay a greater share. The plan will also decrease the value of the vouchers in many cities, which could discourage landlords from participating in the program. Critics contend that the changes will make the wait even longer for the neediest families.

Advocates for the homeless say that only massive, fundamental reforms, including increasing the minimum wage and the number of low-income housing units, will significantly reduce homelessness.

With those goals in mind, the National Coalition for the Homeless launched a campaign last year for its Bringing America Home Act, a massive and ambitious bill that would seek to end homelessness altogether through a series of major reforms. The act includes funding for a National Housing Trust Fund to create 1.5 million affordable housing units in the next ten years, the establishment of an emergency rent relief fund, a requirement that cities receiving federal funds to fight homelessness must repeal vagrancy ordinances, and the distribution of an additional 1.5 million Section 8 vouchers in the next ten years.

Representatives Julia Carson (D-IN) and John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the act in the House in July 2003. It currently has 55 co-sponsors, and the endorsement of major national organizations like the NAACP, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and the Service Employees International Union. The Bringing America Home Act has not yet been introduced in the Senate, but Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has introduced a bill to establish the National Housing Trust Fund.

Supporters expect that no action will be taken in the House or Senate before the election, despite the fact that almost all cities surveyed in the Mayors’ report say they expect homelessness will increase yet again this year.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Madeleine Baran is a contributing journalist.

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