September 20, 2014
HOMELESSNESS: AMERICA’S BIGGEST SHAME
By: Migna Khan
There is a cancer metastasizing within the United States called homelessness. It is affecting close to two million people. A solution to end the homeless problem in America is needed urgently. To that end, the US Department of Labor created the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) Best Practices Project. “The objective of the project is to present profiles of successful homeless veteran employment assistance programs funded by DOL-VETS as an information and development resource for community and faith-based organizations and government entities that are planning to implement such programs, or are exploring ways to enhance the programs they already administer….Great care was exercised to ensure the inclusion of programs representing the full range of program types—urban, rural, faith-based and community-based organizations, local projects, regional networks, and public agency homeless veteran service providers” (US Dept. of Labor). This strategy, if expanded across the board, can eliminate the homeless problem via a partnership of our government, local communities and 501(c) 3 organizations dedicated to assisting the homeless and needy. It is imperative that a solution be found to get people off the streets before social injustice turns into a violent clash between those who are destitute and those who are hoarding the wealth without regard to the suffering of their fellow human beings. This paper will discuss how to end homelessness.
Richard H. Roper in his book “Persistent Poverty: The American Nightmare” states that “poverty betrays the American dream…. [It is] a humiliating insult to self-esteem. Poverty means frustration, hostility and anger…and the victims of poverty experience a kind of arteriosclerosis of opportunity. Being poor not only means economic insecurity, it also wreaks havoc on one’s mental and physical health” (25). Indeed those who are homelessness, or near to it, are carrying an enormous amount of stress and anxiety that leads to chronic diseases, depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Picture in your mind what it must be like to not have a place to come home to at night. What it must feel like to sleep on the street, a dark park or a bench in a sitting position. The homeless bake in the summer, freeze in the winter and frequently get harassed and arrested by police for being asleep in public. Criminalizing the homeless has become so prevalent that MSNBC’s Lauren Spurr reported that “A recent study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty examines the state of citywide bans targeting the homeless population in 187 cities across the country. These bans cover a number of public behaviors limiting the homeless’ capacity for daily survival. The report cites these legislative bans as punishing homeless individuals for “being in public even when they have no other alternatives.” Citywide behavioral bans prohibit sleeping in public, begging in public, loitering, sitting or lying down in public spaces, food sharing, and sleeping in vehicles, among other behaviors….Many cities have chosen to criminally punish people living on the street for doing what any human being must do to survive,” the report states” (Spurr). Activists who feed the homeless are also being criminalized.
The National Homeless Coalition’s 2010 publication on food sharing made mention that “Three years after the 2007 publication of Feeding Intolerance: Prohibitions on Sharing Food with People Experiencing Homelessness, cities still choose to implement measures that criminalize homelessness and, at times, penalize those who serve homeless persons” (National Homeless Coalition).
Ronald Reagan’s policies made homelessness skyrocket yet, when asked about those policies a New York Times reporter quotes Reagan claiming that ”they make it their own choice for staying out there” (Roberts). In other words, Reagan’s policies were not to blame because the homeless like being homeless. What an incredibly ignorant and despicable thing to say! Nevertheless, shamefully, Reagan’s words resonated with the supporters of the Republican Party and, since that time, those who are fortunate to have a comfortable job and living space look down on the homeless and think of them as losers and lazy bums unworthy of so much as a smile. In fact, when asked about the homeless many who are blessed with a job and a place to live in dignity frequently respond that the homeless brought it on themselves because they are lazy, junky people who want a free ride without going to work. They are far from the truth but who exactly are the homeless?
Bryce Covert in his piece “A Record Number of Americans Can’t Afford Their Rent” states that “almost half of the country’s homeless population works, but doesn’t make enough to pay for housing” (Covert). Can you imagine going to work every day and not making enough money to pay rent? Many homeless work long hours but, are forced to report to shelters to sleep at night. They have to rush from work and to arrive at the shelter before the cut off time to be certain they will sleep in a bed for the night. If they are late they get shut out and have to sleep on the streets. Think about how you would feel if you had to sleep on concrete all night and yet manage to look perky and presentable at work in the morning. Painful thought isn’t it? Yet, according to Covert, that is exactly what almost half of the homeless people do every night. The homeless people who are able to work do so faithfully every day. They are not lazy or looking for a free ride from anyone. It is simply that the slave wages they are paid aren’t enough to allow them to rent an apartment.
In addition to being labeled as lazy freeloaders the homeless are stereotyped by society as nonwhite persons signaling Blacks and Latinos as the majority of the poor population but, contrary to popular misconceptions, poverty and homelessness can strike anyone at any time. Roper made the observation that “signs show that the quality of life and standard of living is deteriorating for many Americans. As the number of poor and homeless reaches all-time highs and continues to rise at alarming rates, more and more of the poor are former members of the middle class” (Roper). Undeniably many persons who were living comfortable middle class lives with nice houses, a decent car and savings in the bank have now fallen into poverty and homelessness.
A homeless person in today’s America can come from all walks of life, all colors and all ethnicities. In 1991 when Roper wrote his book the statistics for the poor were: “40% children, 11% elderly, 30% women and 77% living in low income families” (43). He went on to state that “although a disproportionate number of poor Americans are nonwhite, the majority 69% are white (45)….In other words, the majority 69% of poor people are white, yet only 12% of the entire population is poor” (48). That statistic debunks the myth that only black and Latino minorities compose the bulk of the poor population and establishes that white people are the majority group in the poor population. Roper’s research also showed that Black people are 28% of the poor population (48)…while the Latinos are 12.5% of the poor (49). Amazingly, in spite of the statistics, the myth persists that Blacks and Latinos live off of welfare and other entitlements, but no mention is ever made of the white majority receiving those same benefits.
The National Coalition for the Homeless relates that “In 2003, children under the age of 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population; 42% of these children were under the age of five (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004). This same study found that unaccompanied minors comprised 5% of the urban homeless population. However, in other cities and especially in rural areas, the numbers of children experiencing homelessness are much higher. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in 2004, 25% of homeless were ages 25 to 34; the same study found percentages of homeless persons aged 55 to 64 at 6%” (National Coalition for Homeless).
As we can see the statistics show that since Roper’s book was published the numbers of homeless people have increased substantially with the hardest hit group being children under the age of five. As of July 2014 data collected by Statistic Brain from The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty show a dramatic increase in the “homeless population [to] 1,750,000 people nationwide with 31,000,000 Americans living in hunger or on the verge of it” (Statistic Brain). Sadly, “The number of homeless students [across all lines] reached a record last year at 1.1 million” (Covert).
Other members of the poor and homeless classes are the Native American Indians, the elderly (of all colors, ethnicities and religions), the working poor (of all colors, ethnicities and religions), and the chronically homeless (of all colors, ethnicities and religions).
While the national data shows that there are 1,750,000 homeless people in America I must relate that in Hudson County, New Jersey a homeless count is done every year, but it is not accurate. The reason why is because the counting is done during the course of one day in the dead of winter and, given the frigid weather, the majority of the homeless are hiding and cannot be counted. Last year the Hudson County Point-In-Time Count of the Homeless reported that there are 821 persons living homeless in Hudson County (Monarch Housing) but, in reality, the number exceeds 2,500 people who need emergency shelter in a county in which there 820 beds (all shelters combined). The findings of the Point in Time Report are not to be taken seriously yet, I wonder how accurate the national figure is. If what happens in Hudson County, New Jersey is representative of how homeless counts are conducted nationwide then surely there must be more than 1,750,000 homeless people nationwide. A virtual army of displaced persons.
In my experience, as a social justice advocate, I have met homeless veterans (“40% of the homeless population are veterans”) (Statistic Brain), teenagers, and people (of all colors and ethnicities -some of whom possess college and graduate degrees) living on the streets with no hope of finding the dignity of a job or place to live. All of those persons have good minds and skills but have been denied the opportunity to get back on their feet by a system that perpetuates the misery of homelessness rather than provide a way out of it. Shamefully, America has become a nation that literally punishes people for being poor. Nevertheless, now that we have identified who the homeless are we must turn our attention to what creates homelessness. How do people end up on the street?
Up until Reagan the United States had a relatively small amount of homeless people because the government was busy building and investing in research and development which provided millions of job opportunities. People were working and earning good incomes at middle-class jobs and able to live comfortably until Reagan changed all that. Robert Parry states in his piece “The Dark Legacy of Reaganomics” that: “It may be political heresy to say so, but a strong case could be made that the greatest American “job creator” over the past 80 years has been the federal government – or put differently, the government built the framework that private companies then used to create profits and jobs. This heretical view also would hold that it was Ronald Reagan’s deviation from this formula for success some 30 years ago that put the United States on its current path of economic decline – by starving the government of resources and providing incentives for the rich, through sharply lower taxes, to get super-greedy. Rather than continuing a half century of policies that made smart investments in research and development – along with maintaining a well-educated work force and a top-notch transportation infrastructure – Reagan declared “government is the problem” and built a political movement for deconstructing it. That movement, which boasts powerful right-wing media outlets and well-funded think tanks, now dominates the American political landscape. And, today it presses even harder than Reagan did for dismantling government programs while rejecting the slightest revenue enhancements, like closing tax loopholes for corporate jets or any other tax advantage favoring the rich” (Parry).
Without a doubt, the policies of the Reagan Administration started the downward spiral of our economy from a prosperous democracy into free for all fascism. As a result, for the past 35 years unemployment has been steadily rising as the multinational corporations moved jobs overseas leaving the rich swimming in money and the American workforce hanging in the wind. The persistent loss of work opportunities has increased the ranks of the homeless to all-time highs.
Another big creator of homelessness has been the staggering number of foreclosures that have swept the nation. Peter S. Goodman in a 2009 New York Times piece informs readers that “Growing numbers of Americans who have lost houses to foreclosure are landing in homeless shelters, according to social service groups and a recent report by a coalition of housing advocates. Only three years ago, foreclosure was rarely a factor in how people became homeless. But among the homeless people that social service agencies have helped over the last year, an average of 10 percent lost homes to foreclosure, according to “Foreclosure to Homelessness 2009,” a survey produced by the National Coalition for the Homeless and six other advocacy groups” (Goodman).
In 2013, Washington’s Blog reported that “From January 2007 to December 2011 there were more than four million completed foreclosures and more than 8.2 million foreclosure starts…Given that there are currently around 316 million Americans – more than twice the number during the Great Depression – such high foreclosure rates mean that there may well be as many people suffering foreclosure than during the Great Depression … or more” (Washington’s Blog). People who fell victims to foreclosures fell into homelessness. I have witnessed families sleeping in their cars because they had no place to go, but the banks got the bailouts as a reward for their financial fraud.
Once a person falls into homelessness it is almost impossible to climb out of it. Lack of affordable housing has ensured that the homeless stay as they are. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that “Since 2000, the incomes of low-income households has declined as rents continue to rise (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2005). In 2009, a worker would need to earn $14.97 [per hour] to afford a one-bedroom apartment and $17.84 [per hour] to afford a two-bedroom apartment. There has been an increase of 41% from 2000 to 2009 in fair market rent for a two-bedroom unit, according to HUD (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2009). The lack of affordable housing has led to high rent burdens (rents which absorb a high proportion of income), overcrowding, and substandard housing. These phenomena, in turn, have not only forced many people to become homeless; they have put a large and growing number of people at risk of becoming homeless” (National Coalition for Homeless). There is no way a working homeless person can afford rent when the “minimum wage is $7.25 per hour” (US Dept. of Labor).
Other factors that contribute to the creation of homelessness are mental illness, drug and/or alcohol addiction, domestic violence and lack of affordable healthcare. “22% of the adult homeless population suffer from severe and persistent mental illness but [only] 6% of homeless persons have a mental illness that requires institutionalization…66% have problems with alcohol [and] drug abuse” (Statistic Brain). After a long period of time in a homeless state, it is natural for people who can see no way out of despair to spiral into a deep depression and resort to drugs and alcohol as a means to escape their stress, emotional pain and social isolation.
Domestic violence also creates homelessness. It leaves many women with little option but to seek shelter on the street when they have no job or work for minimum wage. “22% of homeless women claim domestic abuse as the reason for their homelessness” (Brain Statistics).
All of these problems require professional healthcare to help the chronically poor and homeless recover but, they are facing a tremendous lack of affordable medical care. The undetected and/or untreated mental illness and communicable diseases that prevail in the homeless population (such as Tuberculosis, AIDS and other infectious diseases) present a danger to the whole of society yet the lack of affordable healthcare for the poor/homeless is a growing problem in the USA. Chronically poor and homeless persons cannot afford health insurance on their own. They depend on government programs such as federally funded Medicaid and State funded Charity Care to pay for medical treatment. Unfortunately, both those funds have been cut to the bone leaving the poor and/or homeless Americans without any way to see a doctor. Hospitals are also becoming increasingly privatized and are not willing to process Charity Care for payment. As a result, some hospitals are turning away the homeless because they lack the money to pay for services in spite of laws which prohibit hospitals from turning away or dumping patients who cannot pay for services. The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics states that “patient dumping violates the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Enacted in 1986, EMTALA seeks to prevent any refusal of care for patients who are unable to pay. Despite these statutes and penalties, hospitals have continued turning patients away. From 1996 to 2000, the watchdog organization Public Citizen confirmed violations from 527 hospitals in 46 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Of the 527 hospitals, 117 had violated the act more than once, and for-profit hospitals were significantly more likely to do so” (Jeffrey Kantroff and Rochelle Watson). Shamefully, in Hudson County, New Jersey nearly all of the public hospitals have been privatized leaving Jersey City Medical Center to be the only hospital receiving the poor and homeless. How long Jersey City Medical Center will continue to do so is a pressing concern.
At this point, there may be some of you who are wondering: why does homelessness persist in a nation as rich as the United States? The answer in a capsule is that stagnant, falling and lost incomes, lack of job security, lack of affordable housing, and the decline of public assistance have combined to such an extent that homelessness has become the norm for the poor and displaced while the 1% elitist robber class hoards all the wealth and shares with none.
The federal government declares it wants to end homeless by 2015 and then turns around and cuts funds to eliminate homelessness from the budget. Since 2010 federal funding “reduced veteran homelessness by 24% and chronic homelessness by 16% since 2010….When the FY 2013 Sequestration took effect, HUD was faced with cutting approximately 5% from its budget in just 7 months.…Sadly, those cuts meant that approximately 74,000 families who could have moved from Housing Choice Voucher waiting lists and into housing remain on those waiting lists. And in other cases, families were unable to use vouchers they had in hand. Those cuts also meant that homeless individuals and families remained on the streets and in shelters, and means that we will not achieve our goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015….In HUD’s other programs, block grants to every community were cut, capital improvements to public housing units were reduced and jobs were lost as a result” (US Department of Housing and Urban Development). Clearly the federal government is creating homelessness but what should it do to eliminate it?
There are five steps that the federal government needs to accomplish in order to end homelessness. First, it needs to address the problem of low wages by raising the minimum wage to be at par with true inflation. Second, it needs to create affordable housing and issue rental assistance vouchers to enable the poor and homeless access to affordable housing. Third, the Government should provide free healthcare and social services to get the poor and homeless the treatment necessary to regain health and be able to function in society again. Fourth, it needs to stop criminalizing the homeless for being on the street and lastly, it must stop criminalizing activists who feed and/or assist the homeless. If the federal government is truly serious about eliminating homelessness from our society taking those steps listed above is imperative yet, cannot be fully effective without the participation of the Community.
Our local communities must use the funding received from the federal government to take the required actions on the street to bring the homeless off the streets. Each local community must have a task force that works in tandem with the 501c (3) corporations dedicated to helping the homeless. An important part of the process is to assist the homeless in re-acquiring documentation that has been lost/stolen on the street (i.e. social security cards, birth certificates, Medicare/Medicaid coverage cards, and driver licenses). Communities must also help the homeless to find suitable housing, locate employment, set up a bank account, and establish telephone service to enable them to reintegrate into mainstream society.
The cooperation between the federal government, the 501c (3) corporations and the local community is the best partnership to end homeless in America. Homelessness must be solved because if left as is the number of homeless will continue to rise and they will be forced to end their own misery by means of pitchforks. Criminalizing the homeless does not solve the problem. We must not follow the path of Hitler who took to arresting and executing the homeless as an undesirable class of persons. There is still time to reverse the damage if our government, the 501c (3) corporations and society, as a whole, address the problem in earnest.
It is strongly urged that all reading this research paper will raise their voices to demand the Federal Government take the necessary steps to end homelessness and build alliances with the 501c (3)’s to actually begin helping the homeless to break free of their misery before they are forced to seek their own solution by way of insurrection. Homelessness does not have to remain America’s biggest shame. If the solution offered herein is taken seriously, by all parties involved, homelessness will be successfully eradicated from our society.
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