5 Things You Absolutely Must Know About Homelessness

Shannon Moriarty

Reprinted with the author’s permission from change.org.

Seems everywhere we look these days, the topic of homelessness is making a cameo. Newspapers, blogs, the five o’clock news, even the cover of Vogue!

So while we have your ear, world, let us take advantage of this teachable moment to tell you 5 things about homelessness that you absolutely need to know. Consider it a primer in reality, if you will.
Without further ado…

1. Homelessness is not a recession-induced phenomenon.

Remember the 90s, when the economy was booming? Real estate was on the up and up and it seemed everybody was profiting off of something, right? Well, not really.

Homelessness was an issue in the 90s. In fact, homelessness has been a consistent presence in the U.S. since the 1980s. Although people will often cite the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill as the main impetus for the influx of homeless to the streets in the 1980s, in reality, a combination of things occurred. The 1980s is when the gap between the rich and the not-so-rich began to steadily widen. So while chronically homeless people were more noticeable on our streets thanks to de-institutionalization, income inequality and persistent poverty have been major—and silent—causes of homelessness since the Reagan years.

2. To end homelessness, we need more affordable housing.

Today, there is no county in America where a person earning minimum wage can afford the median cost of housing. This lack of affordable housing stock means people who already have trouble making ends meet must use a larger portion of their income to pay for housing. Until the creation of decent, affordable housing becomes a priority at the federal and community levels, it is likely that more households will be “house poor” and thus vulnerable to falling into homelessness.

3. We need both sandwiches and solutions.

Amid the global recession, more and more people are in need of food, shelter, and assistance. We cannot allow the basic needs of people in need to go unmet. Efforts to provide shelter beds, warm meals, clothing, short-term rental assistance, and other “band-aid” solutions are critical for those who are struggling to survive.

So yes, pat yourself on the back for serving a meal in a soup line or participating in a donation drive.
But remember: sandwiches alone will not solve anything. If you regularly participate in street outreach or volunteer at a homeless shelter, consider taking your involvement a step further by becoming involved in advocacy efforts. We will not achieve the system-wide changes necessary to end homelessness by continuing to focus on band-aid solutions, necessary though they may be.

4. Stereotypes are wrong—most homeless people fly under the radar.
If the word “homeless” brings to mind a scruffy man with layers of clothing sitting on piece of cardboard, panhandling, then you need a reality check. This stereotypical image is not always inaccurate, but in no way does it represent the vast majority of homeless people in America.

In fact, families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, and most of these families are led by a single mother with 2-3 children. Yes, that’s right—children. One study found that 1 in 50 children in America will face homelessness (according to the homeless definition used by schools, although this is a topic often fraught among homeless advocates).
So why does this stereotypical image persist when the reality of homelessness is so different? Because we can’t see it. Because it’s not as easy a story to put on the front page of the papers. And because structural inequality is not a sexy topic that folks get charged up about. Which brings us to…

5. You can get involved by getting mad. Mad enough to do something.

Do you think it’s unacceptable that we live in a country where people are forced to sleep on the streets, scrape to make ends meet, and choose between medical care and paying rent? Then congratulations, you are now a homeless advocate!

This is a responsibility you should not take lightly, as hundreds of thousands of people will likely experience homelessness in the coming year. These people, and those who are on the brink of homelessness, need people like you who understand the issue and are willing to do something about it.
To get you started in this new role, take a good look at your own community, find out if homeless people’s immediate needs are being met and if a long-term plan is in place to eradicate homelessness. Ask questions. Dispel antiqued myths and stereotypes and take advantage of opportunities to enlighten others about the modern-day realities of homelessness. Read up… stay informed.

Most importantly, understand that homelessness is not a stigma or an indication of personal shortcomings, but rather the state of not having a home in which to live.

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