A Glimpse Into Homeless Populations

sao-paoloThe 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, available as an 80-page PDF file, is the most recent and comprehensive federal report on homelessness in America.

In any discussion of homeless statistics it is important to remember that information-gathering in this area is not an infallible science. House the Homeless has discussed the many difficulties before. All statistics come with caveats, or should, but for the purpose of this post, we take the AHAR numbers on faith.

Another problem connected with such endeavors is expressing the final numbers in meaningful ways. One person experiencing homelessness may belong to many subgroups: female, veteran, Hispanic, family member, disabled, and so on. It is beyond the scope of this post to thoroughly examine the numbers in all groups and all their implications.

Perhaps most worrisome is the subcategory known in the report as “Chronically Homeless Families with Children.” Almost two-thirds of people in this classification were staying in shelters (64%, or 8,412 people), and the rest lived in unsheltered conditions (36%, or 4,693 people).

Since 2007, the overall “families with children” number decreased in 32 states while it increased in 18 states and DC. More than half of all the homeless people in families with children are accounted for by five states: New York, California, Massachusetts, Florida, and Texas. It is said that between 2014 and 2015, the “chronically homeless families with children” number by 14%.


Of all homeless people in families, 48.7% — that’s almost half — are African American. Of that number, almost exactly half live in shelters. Different as they might seem, families have something in common with veterans. A total of 12.8% of the people in the U.S. identify as African-American and 15.45 as Hispanic, yet 56% (well over half) of homeless veterans belong to one of those two groups. The technical term for this is “over-represented.”

Children are relatively easy to keep track of because of mandatory education. But the census-availability spectrum has another end. Veterans who don’t want to be counted, or are so far out of touch that they don’t even think about it, are a slippery and elusive bunch. In some of America’s gnarliest backwaters small bands of dedicated vets search for their lost comrades in order to connect them with services.

Nationally, since 2009, the total number of homeless vets is said to have decreased from 73,367 to 47,725, which is encouraging. On the other hand, the percentage of homeless women vets has risen disproportionately to their number. Female vets are twice as likely, or even three times as likely, to be homeless as any other population group.

Particularly worrisome is the fact that “About one-half of all veterans experiencing homelessness who have participated in VA homeless assistance programs are involved in the justice system.” This overlap is the basis of the vicious cycle that many veterans are caught in. Their lives alternate between incarceration and the streets in classic “revolving door” fashion.

It’s hard to discover whether incarcerated vets and VA hospital inpatients count as homeless. On the darkest side of the equation, it has been pointed out that many vets have evaded showing up in the homeless statistics by committing suicide.

Older and Elder

Almost all housed Americans hold some kind of mental stereotype that probably doesn’t match up with who the people experiencing homelessness actually are. Many picture a brash young panhandler, or a teenage girl who meets men at truck stops. Shockingly, more than half of the homeless population is older than 50, but the distribution across decades is not smooth. “Older” persons between 50 and 64 constitute a big demographic bulge. The National Coalition for the Homeless says:

There is a relatively low percentage of ‘elder’ (aged 65 and over) homeless persons’ among the current homeless population. This smaller proportion may be due to the increased availability of successful safety net programs, which only kick-in at a certain age including:

  • Subsidized housing — Available at age 62
  • Medicare — Available at age 65
  • Social Security benefits — Available at age 65

Still, the waiting lists for subsidized housing are long, and a basic problem faced by many people lack of documentation. A person can spend decades on the street with no paperwork, but for many, the attempt to hook up with services sets off a chain reaction of bureaucratic demands and Kafkaesque frustration.


Source: “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” HUDexchange.info, November 2015
Source: “Veteran Homelessness Facts,” DVNF.org, undated
Source: “Breaking the Cycle of Veteran Incarceration and Homelessness: Emerging Community Practices,” USICH.gov, undated
Source: “Elder Homelessness,” NationalHomeless.org, undated
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY


Puzzling and Alarming News Stories


Granted, the situation described in Fort Worth, TX, in May was dire, with residents being attacked by “transients,” especially after a tent city in nearby Dallas was forcibly depopulated. But still, this headline is worded in a pretty offensive way: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth.” According to this insensitive phraseology, both business owners and families are totally separate and distinct populations, not overlapping with “homeless” at all.

True, there are not many homeless business owners. But there are plenty of homeless families, despite this headline pretending that “homeless” and “family” are radical opposites like “acid” and “alkaline.” This headline implies that they are mutually exclusive terms. It tries to give the impression that families are never homeless, and people experiencing homelessness are never families.

And another thing: If housed families are “fed up” with homelessness, imagine how homeless families feel about homelessness. Would “fed up” be an adequate term to describe how a parent feels about being unable to shelter and protect and nurture his or her own children? Would “fed up” be strong enough words to describe how it feels to see no future?

A matter of interpretation

Then, there is the type of headline that makes false promises. “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes” gives the impression that some hard-hitting journalism will follow, pointing a finger perhaps at the cabal of bankers that caused a worldwide recession in 2008, or the cynical mortgage brokers who allowed the housing market to lose all semblance of sanity, or the businesses that refuse to pay their workers a living wage.

But at what is the finger pointed? What are the identified root causes of homelessness? Mental health issues and substance abuse, and people. Journalist Richard R. Bebout writes, “People with persistent mental illness and substance-use disorders make up a disproportionately high percentage of the District’s homeless population.”

Well yes, they do. But is it possible that isn’t where the real blame lies? Rather than people with mental health issues, maybe the problem is a system totally unequipped to handle mental health issues. Maybe the problem is a country that, unlike every other developed nation in the world, staunchly resists the idea of creating a universal healthcare system.

Maybe the problem is a government addicted to war. Maybe the problem is a society that alienates more and more of its members every year, to the point where they shun reality in favor of a drugged stupor.

There are a lot of candidates for the causes of homelessness, and somebody out there can make a pretty good case for any one of them. But mental illness and substance-use disorders are not simply causes of homelessness. Those two conditions are equally the result of homelessness. Substance abuse and mental illness are symptomatic of much larger problems that are the true causes of homelessness.

In the old days there were workhouses, insane asylums, orphanages, and prisons where society’s unwanted members could be warehoused, and mostly they were horrible places. At the same time, for many families, a lower cost of living and more spacious homes allowed for options. In the old days, more families could afford to donate a spare room to an ailing relative, and maybe even shelter another relative to help care for the first one.

Here is another eye-popping, jaw-dropping piece of news, this time from Great Britain. After one sentence of run-up, the important part is in bold print:

Section 21 eviction notices served on 3 February at the block, which also contains owner-occupied flats, state:

All tenants are being asked kindly to leave Carpenters Place and find alternative accommodation so that the company can continue with helping the ever growing need of homelessness.

At least here there is no doubt about what is happening, and no blame is directed at medical conditions. Alon Aviram writes:

Termination of private-sector tenancies was the leading cause of homelessness in Bristol last year according to government statistics…


Source: “Families, business owners ‘fed up’ with homeless in Fort Worth,” KHOU.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Solve homelessness by addressing its root causes,” WashingtonPost.com, 05/20/16
Source: “Bristol firm profiting from housing homeless — by kicking other tenants out,” TheBristolCable.org, 05/27/16
Photo credit: Ben Tavener via Visualhunt/CC BY


Seattle — What Were They Thinking?

seattleAt the beginning of this year Seattle, Washington, already had a couple of safe-parking zones in the Ballard, Interbay and Sodo areas of the city. People could park their RVs and live there on a permit that was renewable each week. The city provided trash removal, portable toilets, and case management (if the person chose), with money made available after the mayor declared a state of emergency. It cost the city around $270 per month per vehicle to run a “zone.”

Also, in January, the city announced that it would open two “safe lots.” Unlike the “zones,” the safe lots would allow people to stay for a month at a time. Rather than optional, case management would be mandatory. The “safe lot” concept is different from the “zone” in other ways. The safe lot comes with water, electricity, a communal cooking tent, and full-time security staffing.

Opening the Ballard safe lot in February had consequences. One was that the Ballard “zone” closed, making its residents homeless again. The Ballard safe lot was never meant to be permanent, and indeed the land is only available until August, when the safe lot may be relocated or the idea may be abandoned entirely.

And the unexpected cost of the first safe lot changed the city’s mind about opening a second one. The planned second site, in Delridge, would have cost nearly the same amount, but would have held only half the number of vehicles.

Two safe zones had their time extended for two months. All in all, the net gain, in terms of improving the lives of actual humans, was not very impressive. Daniel DeMay writes that “city staff didn’t know exactly how much such a project would cost”:

[…] about a month after the Ballard lot opened […] it became clear that the cost was a lot higher than anyone expected.

[…] one parking lot, with about 20 vehicles in it, was costing the city $35,000 per month, and that’s on top of the setup costs of $24,689

[…] the city is renting the lot from Seattle Public Utilities at a rate of $7,522 per month

[…] the largest cost is staffing — almost $19,000 per month, due to the need to have 24-hour staff on site…

The monthly cost pencils out to about $1,750 per vehicle — more than the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle.

This story quotes city official Sola Plumacher as saying, “We have never done a safe lot. We didn’t really have a sense of what the costs were.” But why? How can this be? Has no other city ever undertaken a similar project? Doesn’t shareable information exist about the costs on some government website? Why is it necessary to reinvent the wheel? Couldn’t someone have made a phone call to learn the hourly rates for whatever type of rent-a-cops were needed? Isn’t the pay scale of a case manager a known element?

More questions: Why can’t Seattle Public Utilities take $1 a month instead of more than $7,000 a month, for land that nobody else would pay to rent anyway? For decades, the film industry has trained experts to estimate the cost of a project with pinpoint accuracy. Couldn’t a city hire one of them?

Seattle is a big place, with many homeless interventions going on. The Safe Parking pilot project started back around 2011 and yielded a grand total of seven parking spaces,  provided by two churches. At the time, it was estimated that between 500 and 1,500 people lived in vehicles on any given day, so the scale of the problem is evident and has only become worse.

This year, while bemoaning the unanticipated cost of one safe lot with a 20-vehicle capacity, the city was also planning to clear out “the Jungle” and evict 300 people  without even vehicles to live in. Guess what happened in May? On the Interbay land where 25 RV-dwellers had been living, the lease ran out and a call was issued to friendly mechanics to come and help the people with un-drivable vehicles get out of there within a week.

Sure, it’s always easy to “Monday morning quarterback” the other guy’s mistakes until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and so on. But really, Seattle? Really?


Source: “City had no idea ‘safe lots’ for homeless would be so costly,” Seattlepi.com, 03/31/16
Source: “Program to help homeless living in cars off to slow, steady start,” SeattleTimes.com, 12/25/12
Source: “Homeless in Seattle’s Interbay area have one week to leave RV ‘Safe Lot’,” q13fox.com, 05/26/16
Photo credit: tiffany98101 via Visual Hunt/CC BY


Why Homeless Kids Are Everybody’s Problem

kindergarten-in-sessionAt the end of 2014, the National Center on Family Homelessness reported that America contained 2.5 million homeless children. The data came from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Dept of Education, which apparently defined homelessness as having no fixed residence, or living in accommodations not meant for human habitation (like garages, storage lockers, etc.), or in “some kind of temporary housing,” or as being on the verge of losing their housing.

One reason for the difficulty of discussing this issue is that various agencies define homelessness in different ways. The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t recognize “doubling up” with another family as technically being homeless — or at least, sets up more hoops to jump through when a family is in this situation.

In one way, this is quite fair, because at least they have a bathroom and cooking facilities and even enough space to lie down and sleep — unlike a family living in a car. Still, the “doubled up” situation soon becomes untenable for both hosts and guests.

Another complication is that the people most likely to take in a homeless family are probably poverty-stricken themselves, and if they receive assistance to pay for their housing, Section 8 rules forbid sharing. To take in relatives or friends is to risk losing one’s own housing, and once a family is kicked out of the program, it is highly unlikely that they will ever get back in. So the end result is a large number of “invisible” homeless families who, even if they are counted in the statistics, probably can’t expect help that really makes a difference.

Last month, for CNS News, Susan Jones compared the 2009-10 school year figure with the 2013-14 number and found a 38.44% increase in the number of homeless students nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes four types of homeless students. One is sheltered, which includes those waiting for foster care placement. Another is “unsheltered,” and fortunately only 3% of these kids fall into that designation, which encompasses abandoned buildings, public spaces, and homeless “camps.” Another subcategory of homelessness is for kids residing in a hotel or motel; and the fourth is the “doubled-up” option.

Then, the Dept. of Education defines four other subgroups, according to personal circumstance rather than living situation. Any given child, in addition to being a part of one of the living situation categories, might also belong to more than one of these subgroups:

Homeless children with disabilities comprise the largest subgroup, followed by homeless students with limited English proficiency; unaccompanied homeless youth who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian; and migratory children (related to seasonal agricultural work).

The grim news is that every one of those classifications contains a larger number of kids every year. They are more likely than securely housed kids to suffer from poor nutrition and extended periods of hunger. They are also more likely to fall ill, and this includes mental illness. Among homeless children of school age, the mental illness rate is estimated at 40%.

Homeless kids’ access to healthcare is limited, and they are less likely to have opportunities for healthful exercise. Parental supervision might be inadequate, and what supervision there is, might be abusive or even violent.

The stress level that many such children experience has been called toxic. It interferes with brain function, and kids who experience mental and/or physical trauma in early childhood have even been found to have smaller brains.

Given all this, keeping up in school is bound to be a challenge. As one small example:

The Minnesota Department of Education found that only 24 percent of homeless or highly mobile fifth-graders were proficient in math while 61 percent of all fifth-graders were proficient.

The earlier this kind of stress begins, and the longer it goes on, the worse the outlook becomes for their ability to comply with societal norms, to sustain personal relationships, to be employable, and to avoid addiction. Prof. Abigail Gewirtz, director of the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health, says that formerly homeless children are “worse off” than those who never experienced homelessness.

Cathy ten Broeke of Heading Home Minnesota notes that even if the housing situation is remedied and becomes more stable, there is a lag time and it takes a while to catch up. This quotation is from Prof. Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development:

I feel it’s the issue of our times in the United States, how to invest in child development and address the inequality that’s undermining our future. The well-being of these children affects everybody.


Source: “2.5 Million Children Are Homeless in US, New Data Reveals,” ChristianPost.com, 11/27/14
Source: “America’s Homeless Kids Crisis,” TheAtlanticCities.com, 11/01/13
Source: “1,301,239: Number of Homeless Students in Nation’s Public Schools Up 38% Since 2009-10,” CNSNews.com, 04/12/16
Source: “Child homelessness can have long-term consequences,” SCTimes.com, 06/04/16
Image by woodleywonderworks