Homelessness is a complex and challenging issue in our country. Of course, if you are homeless you are directly experiencing the difficulties of homelessness. But homelessness is also a challenge for neighborhoods, business owners, and local officials, as well as for those of us who want to help but don’t know where to start. Maybe if we learn more about it we’ll be able to come up with additional solutions.
There are over 500,000 people in the U.S. who are homeless. Washington state’s annual tally of the homeless came in at 22,000 in 2016. While the number of homeless people has increased over 7% in Washington state and Seattle, the homeless population has decreased in Whatcom County. Whatcom County lists 719 homeless people sleeping outside, in tents, in their cars, or using a shelter.
How does someone become homeless? There are various reasons, and sometimes it may be due to a single event, especially for those who have trouble making ends meet month-to-month. For example, there is often a domino effect that can start with transportation issues due to a car breakdown that leads to losing a job or falling behind on rent. Sometimes the cause of homelessness is one tragic occurrence such as the loss of a partner or a medical crisis that affects a living situation. In many areas, including Whatcom County, rising rents and the lack of affordable or permanent housing options are causes of homelessness.
Here are some of the reasons people become homeless:
- No network of support - Support networks are important for all of us and can consist of family members, friends, co-workers, church members, or members of a community group. Just the knowledge that you have someone to turn to for emotional or practical support can be empowering. While state or community-funded programs can provide a safety net, they do not replace a support network.
- Personal or family crisis – Without an ongoing support network as well as a steady income, a health crisis or family emergency such as a divorce or a death in the family can push someone into homelessness. For people living in poverty, it doesn’t take much to push someone into homelessness even faster: car repairs, towing costs, or a large healthcare bill.
- Unemployment is a major cause of homelessness. Understandably, losing a job means you’ll be unable to keep up with your living expenses and you may then become homeless. Being underemployed can also be a cause of homelessness. As rents have increased substantially in our area, more people are finding it a challenge to come up with a damage deposit plus first and last month’s rent. There are people in our community who are gainfully employed but are living in their car as they can’t find affordable housing. Over 15% of the U.S. population is currently living in poverty ($20,000 annually for a family of three). Wages are not increasing enough to bridge this widening gap between earnings and rents.
- Lack of affordable housing - The number of poor households has increased by 27% since 2007 . Over 11 million families are paying 50% or more of their income toward housing. (1) According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, families with only one full-time worker making minimum wage couldn’t afford rent for a two-bedroom market-priced apartment anywhere in the country. (2) Sadly, affordable housing is out of reach for many in Whatcom County as well.
- Mental health or substance abuse - According to the U.S. 2014 Point-In-Time Count (3), nearly 20% of the homeless population had a serious mental illness. There are also homeless veterans struggling with PTSD and mental suffering. Those living with mental illness can find everyday aspects of life challenging. Those with mental health issues often remain homeless for longer periods of time. In 2012, one in five people in the U.S. who experienced homeless also struggled with chronic substance abuse problems (4) — a total of 131,000 people. For chronically homeless individuals who also suffer with addiction issues, permanent housing is key because it combines housing with support and services making for the most stable living situation.
Perhaps some of these statistics are surprising to you. I know they were surprising to me. If you’re like me, perhaps you thought mental health and substance abuse issues affect a much higher percentage of homeless people. Since doing the research to write this article, as well as volunteering this winter to help homeless people in Bellingham, I have realized that most people without homes are people just like me: they want to have a warm, safe place to sleep, food to eat, and be able to contribute to our community.
There are many good people and programs in our community helping those who are homeless and I look forward to sharing more about them in a future article. In the meantime, what can you do? I suggest starting by talking with a homeless person to learn more about them, what’s important to them, and how they became homeless. That one-on-one connection is powerful, is appreciated, and maybe you’ll learn something or change your opinion about homeless people, as I did. We all have value, even if we’re currently going through a tough time or are homeless.