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Growing Homelessness in America

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Homelessness in AmericaIn the world's richest country, the trend is shocking, disturbing and appalling. In its 2009 report on "Hunger and Homelessness in US Cities," the US Conference of Mayors stated:

"Hunger and homelessness (are) at record levels in US cities," citing an overall 26% demand increase over the past year and 19% more homelessness. Yet worsening conditions leave millions on their own and out of luck because Washington has other priorities excluding them.

"At a time of historic economic crisis, the issues of hunger and homelessness in America are more prevalent than ever." Cities are hard-pressed to handle them, and planned budget cuts and revenue shortfalls will strap them well into the future.

Definitions

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a homeless person:

  • "lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence."

Others having them are in:

  • "a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill);
  • an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or
  • a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings."

The last category includes people sleeping in vehicles, garages, bus stations, store fronts, campgrounds, on streets, or other suboptimal places not fit for human habitation.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH)

NAEH "works collaboratively with public, private, and nonprofit partners to develop, analyze, and advocate for policy solutions" for a growing national problem, poorly addressed, and rarely, if ever, mentioned by the dominant media.

Besides the chronically homeless, comprising about 18% of the total, homelessness results from factors including poverty, job loss, home foreclosure, loss of public assistance, divorce, domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, serious illness, mental illness, unaffordable housing, the lack of emergency help, and a federal government that doesn't give a damn.

Youth homelessness is another major issue, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Office of Applied Studies (OAS) estimating in 2004 that about 1.6 million youths ran away from home and slept on the street in the past 12 months. Other estimates range up to 2.8 million annually, many on streets or in places unfit for human habitation.

About two-thirds were older teens from 15 - 17, key causal factors being domestic physical or sexual abuse or substance dependency. Many were thrown out by their parents. According to YouthCare studies, 33% were in foster care, 51% had been physically abused, and 60% of girls and 23% of boys had been sexually violated. Another YouthCare study cited two-thirds of youths with diagnosable mental illness, including disruptive behavior disorder, attention deficit disorder, depression, or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In 2000, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council reported that youths on their own are at higher risk for anxiety, suicide attempts, and multiple disorders, including depression, PTSD, and numerous other physical and emotional problems.

While mainly an urban problem, homelessness is about 9% rural for the above cited reasons compounded by fewer public services and a lack of public transportation.

Veterans comprise one-fourth of the homeless, the result of readjusting challenges, few job skills, lack of available jobs, little government help once discharged, and for growing numbers, disabling injuries and PTSD.

In February 2009, NAEH's president, Nan Roman, projected "an additional 1.5 million people will experience homelessness over the next two years if we don't do anything." Others agree, foreseeing continued large increases as economic conditions deteriorate with little help for the poor, disadvantaged, and growing numbers losing their jobs, homes and savings.

In its four-part "Geography of Homeless" series, NAEH defined the problem, its prevalence, sub-populations affected, and urban homelessness. It can affect anyone, anytime, and be unexpected, the result of millions one paycheck away from vulnerability, and many others from a life-changing event.

Precise numbers are hard to assess, the best estimates ranging from:

  • HUD's lowballing in its latest July 2009 "2008 Annual Homeless Report to Congress" that "On a single night in January 2008 (before the worst of the current crisis), there were 664,414 sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons nationwide," 42% of them "on the street or in other places not meant for human habitation;"
  • the National Law Center on Homeless and Poverty (NLCHP) and Urban Institute estimated (in 2007) 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year (at least 4.5 million if those finding temporary shelter with family or friends are included), based on an earlier National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers study stating on a given night in February, 842,000 are homeless; the total numbers are much higher as only sheltered people were included; many others on streets are uncounted, and the calculations were made before the current economic crisis; and
  • NLCHP used other measures as well, including a 1991 study showing homeless rates tripled from 1981 - 1989, and a 1997 research review from 1987 - 1997 in 11 communities and four states, finding shelter capacity more than doubled in nine communities in three states, and more than tripled in two communities and two states - at a time of strong economic growth.

While precise estimates are inexact, available data suggest a much higher homelessness rate than earlier believed, a growing national problem, and one greatly exacerbated by the current economic crisis. Yet it's unaddressed nationally, leaving hard-pressed states and local communities on their own when they're least able to handle it - never mind growing numbers of affected people discarded like garbage.

The National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH) says:

"Families (and individuals) experiencing homelessness are under considerable stress," moving frequently, forced to get aid if available or sleep in cars, campgrounds or wherever they can under "difficult, uncomfortable circumstances....Homelessness increases the likelihood of family separations or breakups," adds to their intolerable circumstances, and creates a barrier to family reunifications.

A typical family is "comprised of a mother in her late twenties with two children:

  • 84% of families experiencing homelessness are female-headed;
  • 42% of children in homeless families are under age six;
  • more than half of all homeless mothers do not have a high school diploma;
  • 29% of adults in homeless families are working; (and the homeless)
  • have much higher rates of family separation than other low-income families."

Mothers are especially vulnerable, many the victims of domestic violence compounded by homelessness on their own. Over 92% experienced "severe physical and/or sexual abuse during their lifetime," two-thirds of the time by "an intimate partner." They also struggle with mental health issues, half having experienced depression while homeless. They have three time the PTSD rate and double the drug and alcohol abuse incidence. They're often in poor health, have four times the rate of ulcers as other women, and among industrialized nations, America has the largest women and children homeless population.

Background on Federal Housing Policy

During the Great Depression, it began with the 1934 National Housing Act, creating the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to underwrite and insure mortgages and provide security to lenders in case of default. It also established the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, abolished because of insolvency in 1989 by the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, returning deposit insurance responsibility to the FDIC, now itself approaching bankruptcy.

The 1937 Wagner-Steagall Housing Act provided subsidies to local agencies (LHAs) to construct low-cost housing for poor families.

The 1934 and 1937 acts began a dual federal housing policy - public rental housing and subsidies for the poor (mostly inner city) and subsidized credit for middle-income family homeownership (much of it suburban).

Public housing was established to provide acceptable, low-cost, safe rental housing for low-income families, older persons, and the disabled. Later they were stigmatized by crime, drugs, extreme poverty, violence, segregation, and government neglect.

Initially, minorities comprised about one-fourth to over one-third of public housing residents, rising to a level of over 60% by 1978. From 1950 - 1980, high-density public housing units were built, mainly for African-Americans. At the same time, middle income home ownership rose, facilitated by federal financing. It increased the rate from 30% in 1930 to over double that in 1960.

From 1934 - 1968, 98% of federal loans went to whites, the result of segregation, discriminatory laws and practices in both northern and southern states.

In 1974, the Housing and Community Development Act effectively ended public housing construction and began the Housing Choice Voucher Program (called Section 8) for project and tenant-based rental subsidies, the former for specific housing developments, the latter for individuals to choose private housing from landlords willing to accept vouchers.

Section 8 shifted funding from public to private hands. In 1986, the Tax Reform Act established the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC), provided to developers to build affordable housing.

In 1989, Congress appointed a National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing to evaluate its condition nationally. It found most units well maintained and managed but a growing number in "the most distressed and notorious urban developments in the nation, where crime, poverty, unemployment, and dependency were solidly entrenched."

Based on the Committee's recommendations, HOPE VI (Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere) was established in 1992 to revitalize public housing, end low-income family concentrations, and create sustainable communities by replacing large numbers of public housing units. As a result, lower density, mixed-income developments were built, including public and private units, and responsibility shifted from Washington to communities and the private sector.

Federal housing policy achieved a high home ownership rate but also decreased the public housing supply, now at 1.2 million units, far below needed amounts, to promote private ownership at the expense of the nation's poor who could only afford fraudulent subprime mortgages causing many to default and be foreclosed since late 2007.

Earlier in 1977, the Community Reinvestment Act passed to reduce discriminatory credit practices, called redlining, by requiring banks to sell mortgages where they operated. As a result, low-income families got them while home values rose, mostly with low or nothing down. That ended, however, when the housing crisis began along with the home ownership dream for millions.

Today, government help for affordable housing is needed more than any time since the 1930s. Then it was forthcoming. Now it isn't or not enough to matter for millions losing their homes, victims of predatory lenders and Wall Street bandits creating a crisis that persists and worsens at a time nearly two-thirds of low-income households face severe housing cost burdens, and about 12.7 million children (over one in six) live in households spending more than half their income on housing, leaving little for other essentials.

In addition, since the 1980s, low-income housing assistance was significantly cut, and by the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of public housing units were dilapidated, resulting in 170,000 abandoned. Yet from 1999 - 2006, federal public housing funding dropped 25% while, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

"Each year, the federal government spends more than three times as much on tax breaks for homeowners - with a large share....going to upper-income households - as it spends on low-income housing assistance."

In other words, wealth is being redistributed up the food chain to those least needing it, leaving others on their own and out of luck because federal low-income funding cuts led to a decrease in quality subsidized housing when it's most needed.

Chicago's Cabrini Green is instructive, about a mile from this writer's residence. When completed in 1962, it had 3,114 units for 15,000 people. Now it's mostly demolished. What remains will be gone before yearend 2010. Other projects are also disappearing, and only 305 new units have been built in mixed-income developments, leaving many of Chicago's poor on their own with no aid forthcoming.

The 2009 Making Home Affordable program has been largely ineffective for lack of teeth, so banks do as they wish because provisions are voluntary. In addition, few modified loans are permanent, most ending after five months so foreclosures remain high, homelessness increases, and two other federal programs are doing little - the Emergency Food and Shelter program (EFSP) and Emergency Shelter Grant.

The Bush and Obama administrations' one-sided priorities (for Wall Street and imperial wars) leave little for America's poor and disadvantaged when they're most in need, including the growing hungry and homeless populations, largely invisible because little about them is reported and nothing on television where it counts most.

Short of recognizing the problem, pushing back for real change, knowing government is the enemy not an ally, realizing reforms always come from the bottom up, never the top down, and it's up to ordinary people to create them, social justice won't happen, including ending hunger, relieving poverty, and helping the homeless, making America work for the many, not the privileged few alone like today under governments that don't care.

A follow-up article will address the problem of homeless children - over 1.5 million each year without safety, privacy, adequate health care, decent education, sustaining relationships, a sense of community, and hope for a better future.


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