What is the root cause of homelessness in the United States? Finding the answer requires some digging…
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After taking control of the most populous city in the United States in January 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams made addressing the problem of homelessness a top goal of his administration.
The mayor, who described the city as in crisis due to its homeless population, told residents, “We are going to have a city that is far better than the dysfunctional city that we’ve had for far too long.”
The homeless, many of them mentally ill, are a focal point in New York’s sharp rise in violence and random attacks on its streets and subways.
In a highly criticized move, Mr. Adams, a former New York City Police captain, directed police and city medics to be more aggressive in pulling severely mentally ill people off the streets, even if they refuse treatment. New York law allows for involuntary hospitalization when a person’s mental illness prevents them from providing for their own basic needs or they present a danger to themself or others.
Opponents of the policy argue that it violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and could subject New Yorkers to “unlawful detention and involuntary hospitalization just for exhibiting behavior perceived by a police officer to be unusual—whether the individual has a mental disability or not,” according to a court filing opposing the measure.
Meanwhile, 50,000-70,000 men, women and children in New York City sleep in city-run shelters each night, with 3,400 being unsheltered, meaning they live in tents, under bridges or in subways. In a city of 8.4 million, that is about 1 in 120 with no permanent residence.
On the West Coast, residents in Portland, Oregon, are debating whether the homeless living in tents should be required to dwell in designated campsite areas. Portland City Council members voted to consolidate the city’s roughly 700 encampments into three large, designated campsites. More than 3,000 people live without shelter in Portland, a 50 percent jump from 2019.
Texas and Missouri recently passed similar designated encampment laws, yet the proposal can be surprising from the progressive city of Portland, long known for its relaxed and often generous treatment of the homeless.
“As visible homelessness has increased, there is also an increase in pressure from the public and from others for elected officials and other folks in positions of authority to address that issue,” said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “What’s starting to happen is that the way to immediately address an issue that is at its core an affordable housing problem is to try and remove people from public view.”
The Cicero Institute, which wrote the model legislation that inspired many of the recent camping ban policies, says creating designated camping areas with services for the homeless is a faster solution for cities compared to building affordable housing.
“One of the biggest problems that sanctioned camping is trying to address is just the unbelievable difficulty of getting more shovels in the ground to get shelter or other sorts or services available for the homeless,” said Judge Glock, the group’s senior director of policy and research. Mr. Glock believes cities do not have “two or three decades” to build enough permanent housing as “tens of thousands” die over that period.
But many homeless advocates say that a policy of restricting the homeless to designated areas effectively criminalizes homelessness and fails to address its root causes. They believe that a “housing first” approach is the only way to address the underlying factors that cause homelessness.
“If you truly want to end homelessness, the only way forward is with housing first,” said Mark Guzman, founder of the food nonprofit MealsonUsPDX. Mr. Guzman, who previously experienced homelessness himself, called the Portland proposal cruel and impractical. “People need love, compassion and resources to escape a situation of homelessness.”
These stories illustrate the near-impossible difficulty in resolving homelessness. For every proposed solution to the longtime crisis, there is an opposing and “even better” solution. A big problem is that the many causes of homelessness are themselves difficult to resolve. As experts and advocates argue about how to move forward, the streets remain filled with those with no place to call home.
The U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency reported 580,466 total homeless in 2020. Though this total is down from a high of 759,101 in 2006, the number of homeless began trending back up in 2016.
The list of reasons for the latest increase in homelessness is long. Increases in mental illness, drug abuse, domestic violence, poverty, rising rents, and flat wages all contribute to the growing problem. The lingering economic and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic certainly cannot be ignored as a major contributor.
All homelessness is not the same. How long, how often, and how permanent the lack of permanent housing is all makes a difference. There are four basic categories of homelessness—chronic, episodic, transitional and hidden. Understanding the type of homelessness a person is experiencing goes a long way toward helping them.
Chronic homelessness describes those homeless for a year or more, or someone experiencing four or more episodes of homelessness in a 12-month period. The chronically homeless are who people think of when they think of those with no permanent place to live.
In 2020, an estimated 110,528, or 27 percent of the total homeless population, fell into the chronic category. Sixty-six percent of chronically homeless people live on the street, in cars, parks, or other locations not meant to be inhabited, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The chronically homeless tend to be older and have had long-term struggles with addiction, mental illness, and poverty.
Episodic homelessness describes those experiencing up to three episodes of homelessness in a year. This category often affects teenagers or young adults previously living with parents or in some other permanent housing situation but remove themselves or are removed from the home because of domestic disputes. Substance abuse and addiction and deteriorating relationships are common causes of the separation.
Transitional homelessness is the most common type, yet often misunderstood. This category of homelessness is usually very temporary and occurs because of a significant or life-changing event such as a sudden job loss, divorce, medical condition or eviction. Unlike the other categories, the circumstances that led to having no place to live are usually unforeseen and due to little or no fault of the person. These individuals often end up briefly staying in shelters until finding something permanent. Homelessness advocates believe it is less about preventing this category of homelessness and more about investing in transitional facilities and housing programs.
Hidden homelessness is the final category and is the most difficult to track as it is usually unreported and undocumented. Those in this state live temporarily with others with no immediate prospects for permanent housing of their own. The hidden homeless survive by moving from one friend or relative’s home to the next. They may stay a few days, weeks or months sleeping in whatever spare space is available before moving on to the next house. This “couch- or sofa-surfing” can put a strain on the relationships and resources of the hosts.
Cities or regions with high costs of living contain many of the hidden homeless. Despite having jobs, these people cannot afford to pay rent and other living expenses.
Fifty-seven percent of the homeless population in the United States in 2020 was held in only five states, California, New York, Florida, Texas and Washington.
However, HUD reported that California had far and away the most homeless with 161,548. The other four states had a combined 168,910 homeless.
Total population, climate and generous social programs help explain some of the disparity in California’s numbers, but not all of it, said Pete White, founder of the LA Community Action Network. Mr. White believes outsiders moving to the Golden State in search of success and achievement, failing, then becoming homeless, is a myth. Instead, he believes the homelessness problem in California is homegrown and is a result of poor governance.
“Eighty percent of those who are houseless in Los Angeles come from Los Angeles. Los Angeles manufactures its own houseless crisis. Many folks houseless in Los Angeles now are houseless in the communities that they used to be housed in,” said Mr. White.
The high cost of living in California affects transplants and locals all the same.
Nearly a quarter of the residents in Los Angeles County live in poverty. Many of the homeless there work full-time jobs yet still live in tents and shelters because housing is simply too expensive. In an episode titled “America’s Homeless Crisis,” Fox News documentary series Left Behind reported renters needing to earn $47.52 per hour to afford the median monthly rent in Los Angeles. This reality forces large swaths of Los Angelinos to live on the streets, in shelters or with others.
But available housing is not always enough to address the problem.
Despite tens of thousands of New Yorkers being homeless, 2,600 supportive housing apartments in the city remain vacant, according to The New York Times. Supportive housing is housing with social resources and support attached such as programs to assist the mentally ill and the chronically homeless.
Mr. Adams, who recently announced the opening of two more supportive housing projects, blames bureaucratic complications for the problem.
“How do you have a vacant apartment, when you need people to be in the apartment, and you have so much paperwork that they can’t get in the apartment?” the mayor said.
The same New York Times article described the application process for supportive housing as “onerous, requiring extensive documentation many homeless people find hard to marshal, along with multiple rounds of mental health evaluations.” Over a 12-month period beginning in July 2021, according to the news outlet, 7,400 applicants had their paperwork approved, yet only 1,200 of them received housing. And not all of those who received housing actually moved in.
During the same period, data shows that a quarter of chronically homeless applicants never received a housing interview and only 16 unsheltered applicants moved into housing. Many eligible homeless wait years for approval having to reapply for housing multiple times due to lapsing documentation.
One New York homeless woman lamented, “New York is one of the richest states in America, and the fact that the needs of the most vulnerable citizens are not being met is frustrating, it’s angering.”
A big problem with permanently fixing the homelessness crisis is the requirement to fix all the problems that contribute to it. Many of these causes are themselves seemingly impossible to resolve.
Consider poverty, a major problem leading to homelessness. Poverty, which is the state of being extremely poor, has several causes. Some include income inequality, lack of education, rising costs and poor health.
The national poverty rate—those living below the poverty level—in the United States was 11.6 percent or 37.9 million people in 2021, the U.S. Census showed. According to Bloomberg, this is nearly 4 million more than in 2019. According to U.S. guidelines, individuals making less than $13,590 annually are in poverty. For a family of four, it is making less than $27,750 per year, reported the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Poverty and homelessness share many of the same solutions. Higher incomes, more affordable cost of living, more government funding and better-educated citizens are all major factors in addressing both and are not easy to address.
Rising costs due to inflation and other factors does not just affect the poverty-stricken. Low- to mid-income Americans are also feeling the squeeze.
Pew Research found a rising share of Americans say the availability of affordable housing is a major problem where they live. In October 2021, 49 percent of Americans said it was a problem, up 10 percentage points from 2018. In the same 2021 survey, 70 percent of Americans said young adults today have a harder time buying a home than their parents’ generation did.
In 2020, 46 percent of American renters spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing, including 23 percent who spent at least 50 percent of their income this way, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Once again, problems with no easy fixes.
Drug abuse and addiction are also closely related to homelessness and can be what causes it in the first place.
Since 1999, over 932,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, there were 37 million current illegal drug users among Americans aged 12 years and older, the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reported. As more illicit drugs become legal and officials relax the consequences of selling and using prohibited substances, these numbers will continue to be problematic.
In 2020, 9.5 million adults over the age of 18 have both a substance use disorder and a mental illness—what experts call co-occurring disorders or dual diagnoses. CNN reported that 90 percent of American adults believe there is a mental health crisis in the U.S.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health in 2020, nearly one in five U.S. adults, or 52.9 million people, live with a mental illness. Mental illness can range from mild to severe. NIMH defines serious mental illness as “mental, behavioral, and emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” Keeping and maintaining a home certainly fall in the category of major life activities.
Several factors are blamed for increased mental illness. They include social media use, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased loneliness and isolation, and difficulty in getting treatment. Solutions to these individual complications elude even the most dedicated experts.
Yet another problem often tied to homelessness is domestic abuse. This especially affects the most vulnerable such as women and children.
According to a 2012 Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, domestic violence was the third leading cause of homelessness among families in the country. National estimates are that 80 percent of homeless mothers with children have previously experienced domestic violence, the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness reported. Many homeless shelters have a designation for women and children suffering abuse, however, demand far outpaces availability.
All these problems tied to homelessness are themselves difficult to resolve. Leaders and experts continue to grapple with solutions for all these issues. They propose solutions such as more funding, more punishment for crimes, more drug programs, more housing, cheaper housing, and more social programs. But none of these solutions seem to be working.
In his booklet Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems, Real Truth Editor-in-Chief David C. Pack explained mankind’s inability to resolve fundamental challenges despite his sincere and best efforts.
“Men have created many amazing technological inventions, but they cannot create solutions to their problems. Mankind has harnessed the power of computers to help process vast amounts of information, but human beings cannot correctly process their personal problems. Scientists have discovered much about the size, magnificence and precision of the universe, but they cannot discover the way to peace. Astronomers can find majestic, beautiful new galaxies throughout the universe, but they cannot find a way to preserve the beauty and majesty of Earth. Scientists have also unleashed the power of the atom, but they are powerless to unleash answers to life’s greatest questions. Educators have taught millions how to earn a living, but not how to live.”
In the end, permanently fixing the problem of homelessness is much bigger than any of us. To do so requires fixing all the world’s problems.
This is not as impossible as it sounds. To learn more, read the rest of Why Man Cannot Solve His Problems.
This article contains information from Reuters and The Associated Press.