“Get a job!” “Don’t give him money, he will just spend it on drugs or alcohol” “They choose to be homeless” “They are just LAZY” “They deserve what they get, should’ve stayed in school!”
We’ve all seen the homeless person with the sign on the side of the road and when we do, many people think these thoughts. What the people offering these judgments don’t realize is that the overwhelming majority of people don’t “choose” to be homeless. In fact, nearly 50% of the homeless in America are working. Why are they homeless then? Well, that is the “564,788 person question” (the number of homeless on the street each night according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness).
The causes of homelessness range from sad to tragic. Job loss, foreclosures, divorce and natural disasters such as the tragedies we are seeing in the Midwest and in Canada are a few examples. These storm victims certainly didn’t choose to be homeless or do anything wrong but they are indeed homeless now. If their insurance isn’t perfect, takes a year to work out the details or worse yet, doesn’t pay, what do those families do? They have lost everything; their homes, belongings and jobs. They are now homeless.
Other people caught in the homeless cycle are our veterans. Nearly 50,000 were identified during a recent count. Many of these folks are suffering from addictions or mental illness and need medication or other assistance to deal with their ailment, thankfully there are charities to help them if a connection can be made. These men and woman were there for our country and now we need to be there for them.
Another very prevalent and sad demographic in the homeless arena are families. Approximately 206,268 were identified in the last count. Divorce, domestic violence, death, single parents and low wage workers are all in this category. Children are resilient but often suffer irreparable damage when forced to live in vehicles, shelters or motels for weeks or months on end. 60 Minutes did a great job highlighting this epidemic: https://youtu.be/L2hzRPLVSm4 (Be sure to have tissues handy!)
Many people think it could never happen to them. But the truth is that one out of three people are two paychecks away from being homeless. There are 12 million renters pay more than 50% of their annual income for housing and 37 million people living in poverty in America. Simple fact, a minimum wage worker cannot support a household and pay rent. There is a critical shortage of affordable housing in the US and, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition; approximately 200,000 units are destroyed annually. That combined with the “aging out” tax credit population and the mile long waiting lists for section 8 vouchers, we have the perfect storm.
Many families are turning to rent by the week motels. Certainly not a replacement for a home, but better than a car….at least that is what they hope. The horrific thing is that many of these no-tell motels are a safe haven for drug dealers, prostitutes, pedophiles and the like. The majority of these families cannot afford proper childcare so they leave unattended children in the motel rooms or rely on “neighbors” from other motel rooms. Often there are five or six people in a one room motel, with no kitchen so they are forced to eat out or eat junk food only adding to expense or health issues. By the end of the month the families have paid more in “rent” for the motel room than they typically would have paid for an apartment (the average room in central Florida is $300-$350/week). It is a vicious cycle they just need help breaking. These families are looking for a hand up, not a hand out.
Think about your residents and how quickly things have turned for them. One serious health issue could completely drain a savings account and lead to homelessness in a period of a few short months. I recently housed a single mom with two teenage sons through our charity. This family was homeless and living in their car because they lost their apartment. The mom fell behind on rent because she had missed too much time from work taking her 15 year old to his chemotherapy appointments; he has leukemia.
The first thing a person loses when they become homeless isn’t their home, it’s their dignity. I hope the next time you see a homeless person on the street you look beyond the sign to the person holding it. Look them in the eye, say hello, and maybe ask them their story.
Lori Trainer is presenting "Homelessness In America: What Can We Do to Help?" at the 2016 NAA Education Conference & Exposition. You can register for the conference here, and add Lori's session to your schedule on Friday, June 17th at 9:00am.