I would like to share with you the evolution of what being civically engaged meant to me while volunteering at the soup kitchen held by the Lombard Central Presbyterian Church for my civic engagement class and what I discovered about homelessness. I guess what struck me the most was that most of the people who came to get food lacked medical care to some degree. I had not expected to witness such a clear relationship between lack of income and lack of medical care probably because I assumed that some form of medical care would be provided by hospitals for these types of patients if not by nonprofit organization. This observation highlighted the tangibility of the issue of overpriced health care and poverty in the United States.
That being said, homelessness and lack of medical care is probably not new information. This is why I decided to look for other sources contributing to the increase of homelessness that would help broaden the options of how we could help, as responsible citizens, fight this situation and understand why so many people have to rely on soup kitchens or other nonprofit organizations in order to provide for themselves.
There is a common idea that homelessness results from a certain form of inherited poverty, which fosters a lack of education that perpetuates joblessness and therefore stagnation of the individual’s social status. Overall, there are a lot of speculations of how homelessness comes to be. This makes homeless people stigmas of our society and they are viewed as burdens rather than people who deserve to be acknowledged in order to overcome their plight.
The first assumption that comes to mind is inherited poverty and its consequences. Indeed homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked according to the idea that poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care and education.
Homelessness persists due to stagnant or falling incomes and less secure jobs that offer fewer benefits. For instance, low-wage workers have been particularly left behind as the disparity between rich and poor has increased rapidly. Factors contributing to wage declines include a steep drop in the number and bargaining power of unionized workers, erosion in the value of the minimum wage, and a decline in manufacturing jobs.
Furthermore, a lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs have contributed to the current housing crisis and to homelessness. According to recent studies, the shortages of affordable housing are most severe the needs of renters with extremely low incomes. Federal support for low-income housing has fallen to 49 percent from 1980 to 2003 and about 200,000 rental-housing units are destroyed annually. The problem is that renting is one of the most viable options for low-income people and if these facilities are being destroyed or taken away, it reduces options for proper housing.
Housing assistance can make the difference between stable housing, precarious housing, or no housing at all. However, the demand for assisted housing clearly exceeds the supply. Only about one-third of poor renter households receive a housing subsidy from the federal, state or local government. The limited level of housing assistance means that most poor families and individuals seeking housing assistance are placed on long waiting lists. This leads to people remaining in shelters or inadequate housing arrangements longer. So homelessness is not just some curse that is passed on from generation to generation but can happen due to exterior economic or social reasons.
Some of these reasons are domestic violence and divorce, mental illness and addiction disorders, and veteran homelessness. People often neglect homelessness as a cause domestic violence. Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. Fifty percent of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.
Mental illnesses are also causes of homelessness. Approximately 16 percent of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness, which ranges from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. According to the 2003 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Report, most homeless persons with mental illness do not need to be institutionalized but can live in the community with the appropriate supportive housing options. However, many mentally ill homeless people are unable to obtain access to supportive housing. This explains how perfectly competent individuals with scholarly degrees affected by an illness can end up homeless.
Addiction disorders also contribute to homelessness. While rates of alcohol and drug abuse are disproportionately high among the homeless population, the increase in homelessness over the past two decades cannot be explained by addiction alone. Addiction does increase the risk of displacement for the precariously housed, but in the absence of appropriate treatment, it may doom one’s chances of getting housing once on the streets.
Veteran homelessness is also a factor in the increasing homeless population. Though research indicates that veterans who served in the late Vietnam and post-Vietnam era are at greatest risk of homelessness, veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq will often have severe disabilities, including traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that are known to be correlated with homelessness. Unfortunately, veterans who devote their life to serve their country end up at the bottom of the social scale once they are considered no longer fit to fight.
Homelessness results from a complex set of circumstances that require people to choose between food, shelter, treatment for their mental illness and other necessities. It is important that a concerted effort to ensure activities within the education system geared towards raising awareness of the different issues regarding homelessness be sustained in order to break away from stereotypes.
Claire Davis is a freshman international area studies major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at [email protected]