Homelessness in America has a history dating back to the 1870s, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which is a part of the US National Library of Medicine and reports on biomedical and genomic information. The crisis surged in the 1980s as a result of high unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, and a rise in both physical and mental illnesses. It has since been recognized as a humanitarian issue that requires government intervention to be solved. Under Ronald Reagan’s administration, the 1987 McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act was passed in order to provide federal funding for homeless shelters as a place of refuge for those living on the streets. However, the crisis is not so simple that it can be solved in one fell swoop.
There are many root causes of homelessness, but most boil down to one thing: a disadvantaged economy that keeps the weak suppressed and the strong on an untouchable pedestal. If we were to equalize the ruthless playing field that is the current state of the economy by pushing both affordable housing and healthcare in addition to enforcing livable wages, the homelessness issue would be drastically less significant than what it has been in years of late.
The current state of the economy makes it nearly impossible to buy a home, much less maintain one. Three main factors play into this: the lack of affordable housing, the broken state of the healthcare system, and the unlivable wages being doled out to employees. For starters, prices of houses have skyrocketed over the past several decades. How is one supposed to afford a home if the market caters strictly to the wealthy?
The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), an organization centered around eradicating homelessness in America and who’s had a key hand in influencing congressional legislation, discusses this very issue. In an article about the Housing Choice Voucher Program (HVC), a federal program to assist low-income families, the alliance cites a Harvard study that notes that “between 1987 and 2015, the number of very low-income renters grew by 6 million while the number assisted rose only 950,000.” This statistic proves two points.
One, that homelessness has been on the rise for the last several decades; and two, that the ratio between low-income households and government assistance for them is incredibly disproportionate. The trend indicates that lower assistance means higher rates of homelessness. Therefore government action in regulating the housing market would be a significant step in reducing homelessness. Comprehensive and universal healthcare is another critical factor in ending homelessness. The United States is the only developed country in the world without universal healthcare. As a nation of democratic capitalism, the idea is that private healthcare incentivizes people to seek out work that provides them with healthcare benefits, thus growing the economy, in theory. This, however, is not the case.
A 2019 report on the connection between health and homelessness from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, or the NHCHC, details how the lack of universal healthcare can be the catalyst for people to end up on the streets. A health crisis that puts one out of work can just as easily land them on unemployment, and in turn leave them without health benefits; they’re now unable to work or receive proper medical attention, which is a common path to homelessness (NHCHC). Had there been a universal healthcare system for this hypothetical–yet very realistic–person to fall back on, they would’ve been able to recover and return to work as a contributing member of society. Instead, they’re doomed to progressively get worse and meet their ultimate ruination. The country certainly needs a redesign on this front. The last aspect of the economic trifecta in disrepair is the absence of livable wages for employees. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. This has not risen in over a decade. A person working a full-time job at this wage cannot afford housing on their own anywhere in America (NAEH).
Minimum wage at its core, is supposed to be the lowest amount of money that can be paid to an employee in order for them to fully support themselves. Frankly, it’s impossible to do with the current rate. During the pandemic, the public has wondered why people would rather stay on unemployment than return to work. The reason? Their jobs are not paying them enough. It is more cost-effective for some to remain unemployed than it is to go to work, which is unacceptable. Raising the minimum wage would ensure a consistent and substantial income for workers in America; they’d be able to afford rent on their own in addition to their other expenses, lowering the rates of homelessness. This is a crisis that everyone seems to scratch their heads at, yet there are clearly actions that can be taken to ensure stability and roofs over people’s heads. Economic reform in the forms of housing, healthcare, and pay rates is a huge first step.
A long-lived solution to keeping people off the streets is the use of homeless shelters. Shelters have been a great source of refuge for those lacking housing, but the original purpose of these was as a temporary landing spot until people were soon able to get back on their feet. Further, many homeless people will avoid shelters due to the commonly dangerous nature of them. In a discussion led by Ari Shapiro of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, formerly-homeless David Pirtle describes his personal experiences with shelters and why he stayed out of them. Among other things, Pirtle reveals that thievery, drug use, overcrowding, and even death consistently occurred in shelters.
Shelters will not be the ultimate solution to homelessness, particularly because their very existence suggests that there is a large enough population of homeless people that need shelter. What is needed is a preventative solution, not a band-aid on an existing crisis. A former shelter director agrees that shelters do little in addressing the homelessness issue, reporting that he believes it’s in the country’s best interests to repurpose shelters into individual units for homeless people to reside in, which would be a far less hostile area of refuge (Shapiro). Further, the requirements for people to be admitted into shelters are too steep. Many homeless people refuse to enter shelters because they suffer from addiction and other mental illnesses, which is not permitted at many locations, according to reporter Mike Gatto of The Mercury News. This is applied even locally.
Becca Savransky of the Seattle PI interviewed various people struggling or who have struggled with homelessness, and they all concluded that shelters were not the best option for them because of their restrictive nature that prevents them from maintaining a job or having other forms of self-autonomy over their lives. Shelters are inherently flawed and do not address the root causes of homelessness. It is instead much better to prioritize eliminating factors that put people at risk of homelessness to begin with, and economic equity is the way to do that.
Getting people off the streets and into stable housing is in the best interests of the entire country. The implications are stupendous. Studies show that there is correlation between the rise of homelessness and the rise in substance abuse; promoting affordable housing and getting people into those houses would ensure stability for them, making it easier for them to get help and beat addiction (NCBI). A large percentage of drug users are homeless, so housing these addicts would yield a significant decrease in drug use rates nationally.
This would not only let law enforcement focus on other pressing issues, but it would also ease community members’ consciences knowing that their neighborhoods are safer and more welcoming. Another eventual benefit would be more financial stability all around, especially for taxpayers. Creating affordable housing sometimes is argued to be too much of a financial burden on the general public. However, the outcomes of this supportive housing save taxpayers more money than if the people benefiting from the program were without a home; in fact, these programs “reduce the use of publicly funded crisis services, including jails, hospitalizations, and emergency departments” (NAEH). Clearly, the average person stands to gain much from helping to reduce homelessness in the form of affordable housing. Pennsylvania representative Jordan Harris elaborated on this in May of 2021.
In a brief press conference, Harris explained the benefits of raising the minimum wage: in addition to lowering homelessness rates, these workers would be making an income that is higher than the national poverty line. Why does this matter? The income from their employer would be sufficient, so they would not qualify for tax-funded government assistance programs. This puts money back into taxpayers’ pockets while simultaneously fighting homelessness. Enforcing affordable housing and livable wages would not only reduce homelessness, but it would also lower crime rates related to drugs and it would save taxpayer money. These are beneficial across the board.
America has the resources to truly change the current state of homelessness, which is abysmal at this point in time. What are the steps in getting there? First, we need to recognize the homeless as people who need help and rehabilitation, because first and foremost they are people. Criminalizing their very existence will do nothing to help them get off the streets. Other countries do not experience homelessness as we do in America, and that is because they actively write legislation to prevent it from happening.
We must convince voters that it is best for everyone to consciously partake in programs that make housing and employment available to all in a reasonable manner. In turn, they will become invested in the issue and vote for legislation that fights for ending homelessness. In the big picture, homeless people are not responsible for their own despair, or else we would have seen this trend throughout all of America’s history. In contrast, factors like the rise in the cost of living coupled with the inadequate increase in minimum wage are to blame. Society must recognize homelessness as a human rights issue, and not as a conflict of laziness and immorality. These people need help. People must realize their role in this; history is in the making–don’t you want to be on the right side of history?
“Affordable Housing.” End Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness, 3 May 2021, endhomelessness.org/ending-homelessness/policy/affordable-housing/.
“Ending Chronic Homelessness Saves Taxpayers Money.” National Alliance to End Homelessness, 6 Nov. 2015, endhomelessness.org/resource/ending-chronic-homelessness-saves-taxpayers-money/.
Garrett, Daniel G. “The Business Case for Ending Homelessness: Having a Home Improves Health, Reduces Healthcare Utilization and Costs.” American Health & Drug Benefits, Engage Healthcare Communications, LLC, 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4046466/.
Gatto, Mike. “Opinion: Why Building More Shelters Won’t Solve Homelessness.” The Mercury News, The Mercury News, 14 June 2018, www.mercurynews.com/2018/06/14/opinion-why-building-more-shelters-wont-solve-homelessness/.
Harris, Jordan. “Harris Outlines the Need to Raise the Minimum Wage.” 25 May 2021.
“The History of Homelessness in the United States.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 11 July 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519584/.
“Homelessness and Health: What’s the Connection?” National Health Care for the Homeless Council, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, Feb. 2019, nhchc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/homelessness-and-health.pdf.
NAEH. “Why Minimum Wage Isn’t Enough.” End Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness, 9 Jan. 2019, endhomelessness.org/why-minimum-wage-isnt-enough/.
Savransky, Becca. “A Lot of Homeless People Referred to Shelters in Seattle Don’t Go. These Are Some Reasons Why.” Seattlepi.com, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10 Oct. 2019, www.seattlepi.com/homeless_in_seattle/article/A-lot-of-homeless-people-the-city-refers-to-14504490.php.
Shapiro, Ari. “Why Some Homeless Choose The Streets Over Shelters.” NPR, NPR, 6 Dec. 2012, www.npr.org/2012/12/06/166666265/why-some-homeless-choose-the-streets-over-shelters.