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Homelessness in the United States

by Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco Sunday, Aug. 06, 2000 at 2:54 PM
coh@sfo.com 415/346.3740 468 Turk St.

Homelessness in the United States An Overview

Homelessness in the United States:

An Overview

Widespread homelessness is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is rooted in federal policy changes in the 1980s, and it persists today as result of continued misguided federal policy choices.

Homelessness grew significantly throughout the 1980s and 1990s:

o The U.S. Conference of Mayors has reported an increase in homelessness in 26-30 American cities each year since 1985 (U.S. Conference of

Mayors, 1999).

o Many communities doubled or tripled their shelter capacity in the 1980s and early 90s to respond to increasing homelessness: in Boston, shelter capacity increased by 246% between 1983 and 1995, increasing from 972 to 3,362 beds; in Los Angeles, shelter capacity more than tripled between 1986 and 1996, increasing from 3,495 to 10,800 beds; and in the state of Minnesota, the number of persons in homeless shelters on one night more than quadrupled between 1985 and 1997 (National Coalition for the Homeless, 1997).

A declining supply of affordable housing, and the limited scale of housing assistance programs, are the most significant underlying causes of homelessness in the United States.

o Between 1973 and 1993, 2.2 million low-rent housing units disappeared from the market. These units were either abandoned, converted into condominiums or expensive apartments, or became unaffordable because of cost increases (Daskal, 1998).

o A housing trend with a particularly severe impact on homelessness is the loss of single room occupancy (SRO) housing. In the past, SRO housing served to house many poor individuals, including poor persons

suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. From 1970 to the mid-1980s, an estimated one million SRO units were demolished (Dolbeare, 1996).

o The demolition of SRO housing was most notable in large cities: between 1970-1982, New York City lost 87% of its 0 per month or less SRO stock; Chicago experienced the total elimination of cubicle hotels; and by 1985, Los Angeles had lost more than half of its downtown SRO housing (Koegel, et al, 1996). From 1975 to 1988, San Francisco lost 43% of its stock of low-cost residential hotels; from 1970 to 1986, Portland, Oregon lost 59% of its residential hotels; and from 1971 to 1981, Denver lost 64% of its SRO hotels. (Wright and Rubin, 1997).

o Loss of affordable housing continued into the 1990s: despite a rapidly growing economy, the affordable housing gap grew by one million between 1991 and 1995 (Daskal, 1998). By 1995, the number of low-income renters in America outstripped the number of low-cost rental units by 4.4 million rental units the largest shortfall on record.

o In 1997, for every 100 households at or below 30 percent of median income, there were only 36 units that were both affordable and available for rent. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1999).

o The paradox of economic growth and a worsening housing crisis can be explained by the fact that the strong U.S. economy has caused rents to soar, putting housing out of reach for the poorest Americans. Between 1995 and 1997, rents increased faster than income for the 20% of American households with the lowest incomes (U.S. Department of Housing

and Urban Development, 1999). Currently, rents are rising at twice the rate of general inflation.

o Government housing assistance programs can make the difference between stable housing, precarious housing, or no housing at all. However, the demand for assisted housing far exceeds the supply: only about one-third of poor renter households receive a housing subsidy from the federal, state, or a local government (Daskal, 1998).

o The limited level of housing assistance means that most poor families and individuals seeking housing assistance are placed on long waiting lists. From 1996-1998, the time households spent on waiting lists for HUD housing assistance grew dramatically. For the largest public housing authorities, a familyÕs average time on a waiting list rose from 22 to 33 months from 1996 to 1998 Ñ a 50% increase. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1999).

o The loss of affordable housing in the United States, and subsequent rise in homelessness, is directly linked to the decline in federal support for low income housing. Between 1980 and 1988, federal budget

authority for low-income housing was cut by over 50%, from .9 billion to .6 billion (Dolbeare, 1999).

o The FY2000 budget calls for only .7 billion in low income housing budget authority, or 1.4% of total budget authority. In contrast, housing-related tax expenditures, primarily homeowner deductions, 75% of

which benefit households in the top fifth of income distribution, cost 5.8 billion. The entitlement to deduct mortgage interest from income for tax purposes is, in fact, the largest federal housing program.

o In short, while federal policymakers have failed to respond to the needs of low-income households, they have enacted policies that disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans.

Persistent poverty is the other major cause of homelessness. Two factors help account for increasing poverty in the 1980s and 1990s: eroding work opportunities for large segments of the workforce, and the declining value and availability of public assistance.

o Despite recent increases in the minimum wage, the real value (that is, the inflation-adjusted value) of the minimum wage in 1997 was 18.1% less than in 1979 (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt, 1999).

o Declining wages have put housing out of reach for many workers: in every state, metropolitan area, county, and town, more than the minimum wage is required to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair

Market Rent1 (National Low Income Housing Coalition, 1999).

In fact, the median wage needed to afford a two bedroom apartment is more than twice the minimum wage.

o The connection between impoverished workers and homelessness can be seen in homeless shelters, many of which house significant numbers of full-time wage earners. A survey of 26 U.S. cities found that one in five homeless persons is employed. (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1999).

o A recent national survey conducted by the federal government in 1996 found that 44% of homeless people using shelters, soup kitchens or other

assistance programs did paid work during the past month.

o The declining value and availability of public assistance is another source of increasing poverty and homelessness. Between 1970 and 1994, the typical stateÕs AFDC benefits for a family of three fell 47%, after

adjusting for inflation (Greenberg and Baumohl, 1996).

o The AFDC program was replaced it with a block grant program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF benefits and Food Stamps combined are below the poverty level in every state; in fact, the median TANF benefit for a family of three is approximately one-third of the poverty level. Thus, public assistance in the United States does not provide relief from poverty

o Nor does public assistance protect families from homelessness: a survey of homeless families in 22 U.S. communities found that 57% were receiving welfare (Homes for the Homeless, 1999).

o As a result of loss of benefits, low wages, and unstable employment, many families leaving welfare struggle to get medical care, food, and housing. Many lose health insurance, despite continued Medicaid

eligibility: a recent study found that 675,000 people lost health insurance in 1997 as a result of the federal welfare reform legislation, including 400,000 children (Families USA, 1999).

o Housing is rarely affordable for families leaving welfare for low wages, yet subsidized housing is so limited that fewer than one in four TANF families nationwide lives in public housing or receives a housing voucher to help them rent a private unit. Thus, for most families leaving the rolls, housing subsidies are not an option.

o Welfare reform has contributed to homelessness. A survey of homeless families in 22 cities found that 37% had their welfare benefits cut or reduced in the last year; among families who had their benefits cut or

reduced, 20% said they became homeless as a result (Homes for the Homeless, 1999).

o Disabled people also struggle to obtain and maintain stable housing. In 1998, on a national average, a person receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits had to spend 69% of his or her SSI monthly income to rent a one-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent; in more than 125 housing market areas, the cost of a one-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent was more than a personÕs total monthly SSI income. (Technical Assistance Collaborative & the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force, 1999).

Particularly in circumstances marked by poverty and lack of affordable housing, additional factors enhance the chances of becoming homelessness. These include lack of affordable health care, domestic

violence, mental illness, and addiction disorders.

o In 1998, approximately 44.3 million Americans had no health care insurance (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999b).

More than a third of persons living in poverty had no health insurance of any kind.

o Nationally, an estimated 18% of homeless parents who had previously lived in their own apartment reported they left their residence because of domestic violence (Homes for the Homeless, 1999).

o Despite the disproportionate number of severely mentally ill people among the homeless population, increases in homelessness are not attributable to the release of severely mentally ill people from institutions. Most patients were released from mental hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, yet vast increases in homelessness did not occur until the 1980s, when incomes and housing options for those living on the

margins began to diminish rapidly.

o According to the Federal Task Force on Homelessness and Severe Mental Illness, only 5-7% of homeless persons with mental illness need to be

institutionalized; most 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 and/or other treatment

services. The mental health support services most needed include case management, housing, and treatment.

o 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. Many people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs never become homeless, but people who are poor and addicted are clearly at increased risk of homelessness.

o During the 1980s, competition for increasingly scarce low-income housing grew so intense that those with disabilities, such as addiction and mental illness, were more likely to lose out and find themselves on the streets. The loss of SRO housing, a source of stability for many poor people suffering from addiction and/or mental illness, was a major factor in increased homelessness in many communities.

o Homeless people often face insurmountable barriers to obtaining addiction treatment services and recovery supports. The following are among the obstacles to treatment for homeless persons: lack of health insurance; lack of documentation; waiting lists; scheduling difficulties; daily contact requirements; lack of transportation; ineffective treatment methods; lack of supportive services; and cultural insensitivity. An in-depth study of 13 communities across the nation

revealed service gaps in every community in at least one stage of the treatment and recovery continuum for homeless people (National Coalition for the Homeless, 1998).

o Even when disabling conditions such as addiction or mental illness are treated, homeless addicts and mentally ill people must compete with all other poor people for a dwindling supply of low-income housing.

Homelessness can thus be seen as a perverse game of musical chairs, in which the loss of "chairs" (low cost housing) forces some people to be left standing (homeless). Those who are least able to secure a chair - the most disabled and therefore the most vulnerable - are more likely to be left without a place to sit.

o Many people experience homelessness and housing distress in AmericaÕs small towns and rural areas. Studies comparing urban and rural homeless

populations have shown that homeless people in rural areas are more likely to be white, female, married, currently working, homeless for the first time, and homeless for a shorter period of time (U.S. Department

of Agriculture, 1996).

Despite their invisibility, families with children are a growing portion of our homeless population.

Homelessness devastates children.

o Children make up 39 percent of people living in poverty in the United States, but only 26 percent of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999).

In fact, the poverty rate for children is almost twice as high as the poverty rate for any other age group.

o In some states, children under the age of 18 represent the majority of persons who are homeless; for example, 50% of all sheltered homeless persons in Minnesota, 64% of those seeking shelter in Oregon, and 55% of homeless people in Iowa (Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, 1998; Oregon Housing and Community Services Department, 1997; Iowa Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, 1997).

o In 1997, states reported 625,330 school-age homeless children (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). Alarmingly, it is estimated that over 40% of homeless children in shelters are under the age of five (Homes for the Homeless, 1999; Interagency Council on the Homeless, 1999).

Based on these numbers, the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that over one million children in the United States experience homelessness over the course of a year.

o Homelessness severely impacts the health and well-being of children and youth. Homeless children are in fair or poor health twice as often as other children; four times more likely to be asthmatic (the number one cause of school absences); twice as likely to experience hunger; and four times more likely to have delayed development (Better Homes Fund, 1999).

o Homeless children face numerous barriers to educational success. Deep poverty, high mobility, and school requirements often make attending and

succeeding in school a challenge for homeless students. Despite federal education protections, homeless children and youth are still frequently

barred from enrolling and attending school due to residency requirements, immunization requirements, delays in the transfer of school records, and lack of transportation. Homeless children are twice as likely as other children to repeat a grade, and often perform below grade level due to frequent moves and school absences.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, OR TO GET INVOLVED, CONTACT:

COALITION ON HOMELESSNESS, SAN FRANCISCO

468 TURK STREET

SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94102

PHONE: 415 / 346.3740

FAX: 415 / 775.5639

http://www.sfo.com/~coh

coh@sfo.com

AND

NATIONAL COALITION FOR THE HOMELESS

1012 14TH STREET, NW

WASHINGTON, DC 20005-3406

PHONE: 202 / 737.6444

FAX: 202 / 737.6445

http://nch.ari.net

nch@ari.net

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