A Good Works Staff Perspective
It is rare that a person would become homeless for just one reason, however, poverty is a common thread among nearly everyone who experiences homelessness. Whether the reason is situational (like outstanding medical expenses) or generational (coming from a poor family living in an already impoverished area), falling below the poverty line makes a household vulnerable to becoming homeless. According to 2010 Census data, 14.3% of people nationwide are living in poverty. For the state of Ohio, the rate is 13.6%, but in Athens county, our poverty rate is a shocking 32.8% (Poverty guideline for Athens county is $22,050/year for a family of 4).
According to the US Census Bureau, in 2009, 43.6 million people were in poverty, up from 39.8 million in 2008 — the third consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty. Also according to the U S Census Bureau, the rates of poverty for all types of families is increasing. The poverty rate and the number in poverty increased across all types of families: married-couple families (5.8 percent and 3.4 million in 2009 from 5.5 percent and 3.3 million in 2008); female-householder-with-no-husband-present families (29.9 percent and 4.4 million in 2009 from 28.7 percent and 4.2 million in 2008) and for male-householder-no-wife-present families (16.9 percent and 942,000 in 2009 from 13.8 percent and 723,000 in 2008). As more people become poor, more people become increasingly at risk of homelessness.
Another layer of difficulty is added when we take into account the real affordable housing shortage. The waiting list for low-income housing through Athens Metropolitan Housing ranges from 400 to 700 families at any given time, translating into a minimum wait of 6 months to a year. According to a report by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio only 1 in 4 Ohioans in need of subsidized housing actually receives federal assistance.
Many people who experience homelessness are employed. In 2007 the Mayors’ Conference (representing the major cities in the US) found that 17.4% of homeless adults in families were working. Recent decades have seen a major decline in manufacturing and unions (nationalhomeless.org). The kind of extractive industry that we have had in Southeast Ohio (timber, iron, coal) only creates work as long as it is commercially viable to do so, then leaves the landscape diminished and the people poor. Absentee landownership results in the wealth that is gained from the sale of these resources not staying in this area. More and more jobs are low-paying service industry work. Athens County has the highest rate of service industry jobs in the state at 25.1% (09 Job and Family Services Poverty Report). This job market pushes families into precarious financial situations.
These issues describe part of the landscape, but people who are homeless and the people who are helping them know that homelessness is about so much more than housing. People often become homeless when their housing and economic issues collide with other crisis such as domestic violence, physical or mental illness, addiction, transition into adulthood, and relational strains.
Up to half of homeless women and children are victims of domestic violence (nationalhomeless.org). Robbed of their own financial and emotional resources, women with violent partners sometimes must choose between being abused at home and becoming homeless. Women who leave with their children are survivors, but even in the safety of a shelter, rebuilding, gaining stability, and establishing a healthy network of relationships takes time.
Recently, the number of Americans with no health insurance has been reported at over 50 million. A major health crisis can be financially ruinous. While government programs exist to help people with chronic disabling health problems, there is little help while a person goes through the long application process to get such assistance. People who are too disabled to work can anticipate at least a six months application process for Social Security Disability, but often the appeal process can take two years, leaving many people who qualify for help destitute (and often homeless) in the interim.
About 26% of people who experience homelessness nationwide are mentally ill (Department of Housing and Urban Development). This compares to 6% of the country’s general population (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Mental illness often makes people who suffer from it unable to work. It can alienate them from their support systems and even damage their ability to accept needed help. People with severe mental illnesses who have subsidized housing sometimes have difficultly maintaining it through period when they decompensate and need to go into the hospital.
By no means does every homeless person have a substance abuse problem, but SAMHSA estimates that 38% of people who are homeless are alcohol dependent, and 26% abuse other substances. The problems that come from long term substance abuse engulf the abuser’s entire life. Their habit is illegal and leads to more illegal activity, meaning time in and out of jail. Abuse has a negative impact on a person’s ability to work and maintain relationships. It also causes chronic health problems and the spread of diseases like Hepatitis. Southeast Ohio is currently experiencing an epidemic of substance abuse. “Overdoses surpassed car accidents in 2007 as the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio,” (Andrew Welsh-Huggins, AP article).
The transition from youth to adulthood is difficult for many people. For youth who have grown up in poverty, this transition can be particularly difficult. When a family lives in government housing and the youth becomes an adult they must leave the household, meaning that parents dependent on public housing do not have the option to offer their adult children help. Youth who have had to spend time in the foster care system are more likely to experience homelessness as adults (endhomelessness.org). Programs that provide support to children (like Medicaid) are cut off when the person reaches adulthood. Young people are often unprepared for the needs and difficult decisions they face at that age. When a young persons’ family is in poverty, the transition is likely to be more difficult.
The myriad issues surrounding poverty and homelessness create major relational strains. People exhaust their personal relationships in the same way they exhaust their financial resources. By the time a person is living on the streets, camping, or staying in a shelter their relationships are damaged, adding loneliness to their other problems. A simple offer of friendship can be a meaningful starting place in helping a person to recover from being homeless. Entering a shelter, seeking mental health treatment, going to twelve step meetings, applying for help with housing—these can be daunting tasks. Walking with someone, believing in them, encouraging them, and listening can give them strength to address problems in other areas of their life.