12 Things You Need To Know About Homelessness In America

As a nation, we fall short when it comes to caring those most desperate for our care and support: The homeless. In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness in the United States at a single point in time, with thousands of others who just barely keep a roof over their heads. Affordable housing is not easy to come by in America, so staying housed is especially challenging for the people who are most impoverished.

Our homeless population is composed of men, women, and children. In an attempt to change the face of homelessness, here are 12 things you need to know about homelessness in America.

1. 2.5 million children were homeless in 2013 – half under the age of six

That’s a lot of homeless kids. I know what you’re thinking. How is it possible that this many children were homeless if the average is around 500,000 homeless people each day? Homelessness is fluid. While there are the chronically homeless who live on the streets for years, they are a small fraction of the overall population who go from sheltered to unsheltered at any point in time. This means that nearly one in every 30 children in the United States have experienced homelessness.

2. Nearly 50,000 veterans are homeless

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, veterans who served in conflicts and wars from Vietnam and beyond are at the greatest risk of becoming homeless. Research shows a correlation to these wars and the severe disabilities caused by these wars, like traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Consequently, many vets call the street home.

Image via Skid Robot

Homeless advocate and teacher, Thomas Rebman of Homeless and Hungry while ‘homeless’ in Los Angeles.  Image via Skid Robot

3.  216,226 people in families were homeless

Homelessness isn’t just the “dirty drug addict” on the street. Over a third of all the homeless are people in families. These families share similar traits to housed families living in poverty. They are often young, single women who have received a limited amount of education and experience high rates of domestic violence and mental illness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

4. 84,291 individuals are chronically homeless

Considered the most vulnerable of people in the homeless population, the chronically homeless are often reflective of the main stereotypes of the homeless person. Many are suffering from severe mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and physical illnesses which are often linked to injuries or trauma. 

Image via Skid Robot

Image via Skid Robot

5. Annually, over 550,000 homeless youth are on the street

“Youth” is defined by the HUD report as individuals 24 years of age and younger. Even more shocking of a statistic is that of that 550,000 homeless youth, 380,000 are under the age of 18.

6. 110,000 LGBTQ youth experience homelessness each year

And this is considered a “conservative estimate” by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. These young people are more at risk for physical and sexual assault while living on the streets, experience a higher rate of mental health problems and are at a much higher risk of attempting suicide (62 percent) than homeless heterosexual youth (29 percent). They are a group that receives even less access to supportive services and often report verbal abuse, harassment and judgment (from peers and staff) when accessing services at youth shelters and drop-in centers.

Image via Skid Robot

Image via Skid Robot

7. These numbers on the homeless population are mostly crap

Yes, I know that’s a shocking statement and perhaps it is way too strong – hyperbole and whatnot. But, hear me out. These numbers are all provided through a survey known as a “point-in-time count.” Basically every other year communities organize a count of the number of homeless people found on the streets on a single point in time – one single night in January – and report those back to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This data is required for each community to qualify for federal funds available for homeless projects. First off, to do this count in January may actually skew the numbers since many homeless would be attempting to find shelter from January weather. Additionally, those that are concerned with this means of census say there are many people who are homeless, living in hotels or couch surfing that don’t make it into these numbers. While this snap shot gives us a glimpse and can be used for trending purposes – the actual number of homeless citizens could potentially be much higher than reflected in these numbers. Certainly, it provides us with some information, but it certainly isn’t the complete story.

8. Homelessness costs us a lot of money

It’s really quite sad. We spend billions of dollars each year on homelessness, yet that money isn’t really making a difference in the quality of life of the citizens who live in homelessness day in and day out nor is it really taking the homeless off the streets. The costs are incurred in our hospitals, prisons, and emergency shelters.

Image via Skid Robot

Image via Skid Robot

9. Being homeless increases the medical bill for illnesses

As you can can probably imagine, living on the streets doesn’t do a whole lot for overall health. Forget about meeting minimum requirements for adequate nutrition, hunger is a very real experience for someone who lives homeless. Hydration? Water isn’t free. And seeking out preventative healthcare for the treatment of ailments like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or other chronic illnesses is nearly impossible as a homeless person. Factor in the physical risks associated with substance abuse and illnesses related to drug and alcohol use, and the cost of treatments begin to skyrocket. However, the reality of it is, many of these expensive hospitalizations and emergency treatments could be avoided with preventative services. In one study, in one state, it was estimated that homelessness cost an excess of $3.5 million in medical costs per year.

10. Overnight jail stays aren’t free

In cities across the country the homeless are being criminalized. Bans on panhandling, sleeping in public, sleeping in vehicles, and loitering, just to name a few, result in a cycle of acquiring fines that go unpaid, arrests for unpaid fines, inability to pay bail, lengthy pre-trial detentions, followed by convictions that result in the loss of benefits like social security disability and even voting rights, dependent upon the charges. This cycle doesn’t help the homeless back on to their feet and it certainly isn’t beneficial to the community of taxpayers who foot the bill. In Los Angeles it was estimated that 85 percent of a $100 million bill for homeless expenses was attributed to law enforcement costs that did not include the actual pay of the officers on the street. But, that isn’t stopping L.A. from passing more laws to criminalize their homeless population.

Image via Skid Robot

Image via Skid Robot

11. Emergency shelters costs more than permanent housing

Yes, you read that right. The current model which is used in the majority of cities in the United States actually costs more than providing people with Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). According to a HUD study, the costs associated with emergency shelter was $581 per household per month in Des Moines, Iowa. The cost of PSH was reported as $537 per household per month. Houston, the numbers were similar: emergency shelter was a range from $853-$1,817 while permanent supportive housing ranged from $664-$1,757. Permanent Supportive Housing fits within a philosophy known as “Housing First.”

12. Housing First works

Housing First is a philosophy that is not only cost-effective and the “right” thing to do – it works. It logically makes sense – if you want to end homelessness then provide homes. Forget the punitive systems of the old built upon ideals that people must be punished and be uncomfortable to be motivated to do better. Sometimes people just need some help. Period. Having a safe place to sleep, food to eat, and water to drink are necessities to live. None of those things are optional and should not be considered “luxuries.” According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “Research has shown that it’s [permanent supportive housing] is more effective than shelters and transitional housing systems at housing the ‘hardest to serve’ individuals, who often struggle with complex and overlapping health, mental health, and substance abuse disorders.” In Denver, a city which has employed a Housing First plan, PSH has saved more than $15,000 per year per person in costs associated with shelter, criminal justice, physical health and mental health. It is reported that those savings alone offset the costs of housing and still saved the taxpayers a little over $2,000.

Image via Skid Robot

Image via Skid Robot

With all of that information available, there is really no need for our society to continue to criminalize homelessness.

There is a solution. A solution that actually solves the problem in a cost-effective manner, while still providing those in need with the dignity and respect in which every human being deserves.

We can do it. So, why aren’t we?

All images courtesy of L.A. graffiti artist Skid Robot via Instagram