Homelessness In America - Understanding The Facets Of This Epidemic

homeless man holding a sign

It’s common for us to see homeless people where we live as we go about our daily lives. Sometimes, we find these individuals on street corners holding signs asking for money, while others tend to keep to themselves and huddle up on a park bench as they attempt to get a few hours of sleep. Still, other people experience homeless individuals as those who roam around yelling at seemingly no one. Whether you’ve seen one or more of these scenarios in your life, it’s important to remember that the stigma surrounding homelessness is often incorrect. Many times, it’s assumed that homeless individuals want to be out on the streets and would rather drink away the few dollars they earn each day instead of trying to improve their lives. This is far from the truth, as homelessness often isn’t a choice and many times has nothing to do with drug or alcohol abuse.

Of the estimated 2.5 to 3.5 million people who are homeless each year, most find themselves without shelter due to a job loss, domestic violence, PTSD, or a lack of affordable housing. Sadly, many people are one serious life event away from becoming homeless. In an effort to help end the homelessness epidemic, it’s Meriwool's goal to educate individuals about what being homeless really entails. We’re going to take a closer look at the history of homelessness in America, what things look like today, why this situation occurs, and how you can help.

Have People Always Been Homeless?

While there’s no doubt that some people have been without shelter since the dawn of time, the idea of homelessness as we know it today didn’t emerge in the United States until the 1870s. Although facts and figures around homelessness weren’t consistently kept, society certainly made an effort to segregate those who didn’t have regular housing or employment. Many people were vagrants who traveled from town to town in search of work, and once the Industrial Revolution occurred and the railroad system was put into place, it became even easier for people to take up a more temporary lifestyle. Words like “hobo” and “tramp” began to emerge, and rather than embracing the adventurous spirit of these individuals who seemingly floated through life, the idea of homelessness was given a very negative connotation. Initially, most Americans had more of a problem with the assumed lack of morals these people possessed rather than the fact that they didn’t have a stable home to sleep in each night.

The Great Depression was a huge catalyst in developing our current homeless crisis, as poverty and hunger forced roughly two million people to be thrown into a world of unknowns. Living in self-made communities called Hoovervilles, these individuals were often over the age of 45 and primarily caucasian. Rather than attempting to address the problem once the economy recovered, the 1960s and 1970s saw a breakdown in the mental healthcare system. Institutionalized individuals were released into the general public with the promise of regular follow-up care, but sadly, many went untreated and instead slept on the streets without having a support system to help them. Urban areas were particularly affected, leading to the rise of homeless individuals in major metropolitan cities today.

Homelessness In 2020

Many of us can only imagine what it was like to be homeless fifty or sixty years ago, as the facets of homelessness today are far more complex and include a lot of socio-economic factors. Rather than simply wanting to live a life free from societal norms, most homeless individuals today have fallen victim to one or more hardships that have caused them to be without shelter. How did we get to the epidemic levels of homelessness? After the rise in the homeless population in the 1970s due to a lack of adequate mental care for previously institutionalized individuals, a major shift in the 1980s further exacerbated the issue. This period of time marked the real emergence of health concerns such as HIV and AIDS, saw major cities slowly go through the gentrification process, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development experienced a massive budget cut. Responsible not only for keeping up to date information on the state of homelessness in the country, HUD develops and implements programs to help provide stable living environments to those in need. As its budget dwindled, Social Security benefits were also cut and more and more people found themselves with fewer places to live and less money to work with.

While minority groups and those with disabilities have historically been the most affected by homelessness, the 1980s and beyond, particularly in the late 2000s, has shown an increase in families having to endure this epidemic. Roughly 20% of the homeless population is made up of children, although driving through any major city in America might not clearly indicate this. Surprisingly enough, as many as 44% of homeless adults are employed, demonstrating that this issue isn’t tied simply to a lack of income or a desire to live an alternative lifestyle. Unfortunately, many of these statistics have likely changed due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our country is currently facing economic hardship to a degree that many have never seen before, and individuals who may have had a stable job and housing situation as recently as the beginning of 2020 might now find themselves without the resources to continue living in their home.

Causes And Effects Of This Epidemic

homeless man sitting by a tent peeling an orange

We know that due to changes in HUD legislation, a lack of mental health care, and global pandemics have all contributed to homelessness, but many are often surprised to learn just how complex this issue truly is. While some take for granted their ability to wake up in the same bed each day and be able to count on three meals and using a bathroom whenever they need to, others are not as fortunate. Some of the leading causes of homelessness include:

  • Poverty — Rent continues to increase while wages are barely enough to cover one’s basic necessities. In 2004, it was estimated that 12.7% of the US population lives below the poverty line. ● A lack of resources
  • A Lack of Resources — Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) was created in an attempt to help families avoid homelessness, but in many cases, the benefits provided are not enough.
  • Loss of Housing — Some Americans are forced between having to feed their families or paying rent, resulting in eviction if they cannot maintain their housing costs. Shelters can become crowded and leads to people living on the streets.
  • Natural Disasters — Not everyone has renters or homeowners insurance, and if a tornado, fire, or flood occurs, it leaves some homeless. This scenario can be hard to plan for and often leaves people with no choice but to find shelter wherever they can.

Becoming homeless has a profound effect on an individual in both a physical and psychological way. Those who are homeless often lack the resources for medical care and are at a higher risk for skin diseases, nutritional deficiencies, drug dependency, sleep deprivation, and can have a higher mortality rate than others in their socio-economic group. No matter the reason a person becomes homeless, it takes a toll on them mentally as well. Homelessness can lead to a loss of self-esteem, reduced desire to take care of one’s basic needs, an increased danger of violence or abuse, and possibly becoming institutionalized or developing a drug abuse problem.

How You Can Help

homeless man receiving food from a stanger

There is a wide range of myths and stigmas regarding homeless individuals, with many believing that these people are simply “crazy” or don’t want to work. According to the Homeless Census in Santa Clara County, 93% of homeless respondents actually want the option of affordable housing. Being homeless is not a choice, and one of the ways that people can help to end this epidemic is by changing their language around these myths. Rather than calling someone a “homeless person,” consider saying “a person experiencing homelessness.” Stop and say hello the next time you see an individual who lives on the street or bring them a care package with basic necessities. While the COVID-19 pandemic does affect the ways in which we can interact with others, people still have a wide range of opportunities to help, including:

  • Volunteering at a soup kitchen or donating unworn clothing.
  • Becoming a local advocate for people experiencing homelessness and working to promote shelters in your area.
  • Setting up a fundraising campaign to donate to your local shelter or service organization.
  • Others are in a position to donate their personal funds to local organizations or have more time to volunteer than others. Remember that no action is too small, as every effort counts.

Lets End Homelessness Together

It’s our hope that we’ve offered a different perspective when it comes to homelessness, as not everyone in this situation has had a say in the matter. Homelessness affects a wide range of people, so the next time you have the opportunity to help a person experiencing homelessness, consider the impact that you’ll make. We hope you’re all safe and healthy amidst the global pandemic and that you will take a few moments to help those in need because every little action helps to end this epidemic.