Having reliable, consistent shelter is a fundamental human need. Virtually everyone is driven by this need, and the overwhelming majority of Americans find a way to have a place to call home. It also is a powerful social norm; we are socialized to believe that adults should provide themselves with permanent homes, either individually, in family units, or in other socially acceptable congregate arrangements.
Who are the people who are homeless, why are they homeless, where are they in the United States, and where do they spend their nights?
I’ve poked around on the internet some, and I have impressions and not necessarily answers to the those and similar questions. I quickly discovered that what any particular site is reporting is colored by the perspective of the author. So, for example, some people find causes in the personal circumstances of the people who are homeless, such as mental illness, substance abuse, unemployment, the implication being that if they’d change their behaviors, they wouldn’t be homeless. Other people point to the lack of affordable housing and other housing inequities, the lack of sufficient support for the unemployed and chronically impoverished, and similar societal behaviors as the primary causes of homelessness. As with almost every other current issue in the news, the discussion of homelessness seems to fall on one side or the other of a familiar political fault line.
Still, some things seem clear. Most people in the field seem to agree that at any given time there are about 500,000 people without a home in the U.S. Even getting to that number isn’t simple; the official U.S government figure apparently is only about 200,000, because the government chooses to define “homeless” narrowly. Of the 500,000, about 200,000 are unsheltered, meaning the people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks. The others, a majority of the people we call homeless, sleep in shelters provided by various local government agencies and not-for-profit organizations.
Of the half million, more than 100,000 suffer from some form of chronic mental illness, and another 75,000 or more suffer from substance abuse. Some are homeless because they are unemployed and cannot afford housing. Others are homeless because of domestic problems, including abuse, that result in one person or another leaving what had been their residence. For some, being without a home is a lifestyle choice. Whatever the personal circumstances of these people, what we think of as the natural urge to have shelter doesn’t lead them to provide themselves with more permanent, private living arrangements.
Collectively, the half million are a fluid, changing population. In any given year, many people return to more conventional, secure living circumstances. They do so because they deal with the problems that caused them to become homeless in the first place: they treat their illness, they control their substance abuse, they get a job, they move on from difficult family situations. Often, they change the trajectory of their lives with the assistance programs provided by the government or not-for-profit organizations. However, as individuals move on, others become homeless for similar reasons.
Nationally, the homeless numbers have remained relatively steady for a decade or more. There are fluctuations, of course, and fluctuations within various demographics and categories of homelessness, but it appears that the normal condition of life in the United States is that at any given time, a little more than 0.1% of our population does not have a permanent home. Government and other organizations provide a place to stay each night for about 70% of those people, and the remaining 30% sleep wherever they can find a place.
What’s changed in recent years is the concentration and location of homeless people. California now has a quarter of the homeless people in the country, and New York State has nearly 20%. Texas, Washington, and Florida are the other national leaders, and homelessness in the other 45 states might be called incidental. Even the state numbers are misleading. The problem homeless numbers are concentrated in several urban areas: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Jose, San Diego, Boston.
Of the five states with serious homeless numbers, Florida and Texas have seen substantial declines since 2007, California and New York have seen quite substantial increases, and Washington has remained flat. Some people suggest that the increasing concentration of the homeless population is driven by weather, but that wouldn’t explain why New York is up and Texas is down. Others see a correlation with the political affiliation of state leadership and the electorate. More likely, the reasons for these shifts are complex and interrelated.
What should we make of those numbers? First, the news media and therefore the general public seem to think homelessness is a recent and growing problem. It’s neither. What’s happened, it seems, is that the concentrations of homeless people have changed, so that some cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. have begun to have more serious problems dealing with their situations. What also seems to have happened is that the homeless have begun to impinge on space that we, the non-homeless, like to think of us “ours,” like downtown sidewalks, public libraries, and public parks (as opposed to under highway bridges and other places where “we” ordinarily wouldn’t go). It’s bad enough, “we” seem to think, that these people don’t conform to the social norms; the least they could do is stay out of signt.
Next, it seems we will always have some homeless people. We cherish our freedom in this country, and one consequence of that freedom is that there always will be people who choose not to be confined for treatment of mental illness, who choose to decline treatment for substance abuse, who choose to live, literally, on the streets. In fact, it seems that about one tenth of one percent is about the number who make those choices. We don’t lock up those people against their will, because our laws prohibit it. In a country that permits substantial personal freedom, it is unreasonable to expect 100% of over 300 million people to provide themselves with a home; 99.9% actually is excellent compliance with the social norm.
Some people in California argue that homelessness there is a national problem that is being visited disproportionately on their state, and particularly southern California, because of their weather and other circumstances. They suggest that many people have found their way there from around the country, because southern California is a good place to be homeless, and that they should not bear the burden of this problem exclusively. Others would suggest that the economic burden homeless people create in California is simply a hidden cost of living in a desirable location. If Vermonters should contribute to the cost of providing for homeless people in California, why shouldn’t Californians contribute to the cost of plowing Vermont’s snow?
Most cities and towns around the country are not being overwhelmed by hordes of people living on the streets. Connecticut, for example, has about 3,000 people without regular homes, a population about the size of a small town. Those 3,000 people no doubt are located primarily in the large cities, but even in those cities, people without homes are not a major disruption. We provide shelter and services to most of that population. In the dead of winter in Hartford, shelter typically is available for all of those who need it; the challenge is finding those people and being sure they use the shelters. (The cities argue, correctly, that they bear disproportionately the cost of serving homeless people, because those people come from across the state and concentrate in the cities to take advantage of services offered there. The wealthier, surrounding towns are pretty good at making homeless people unwelcome, sort of like Brian Dennehy escorting Sylvester Stallone to the town line.)
None of which is to say that our cities, our towns, our states are doing all we should for these people. It’s one thing to provide shelter, it’s another to provide quality services that minimize the difficulties these people have as they struggle with personal issues and to establish themselves in more secure living arrangements. If Connecticut set aside for the homeless as much money as it provides to the typical small town for education and non-education support (that is, instead of providing for 169 towns, our state provided for 170, the last being the “town” of the homeless people), we would be able to deliver the services these people need and get them back to more traditional lives more quickly than we do now.
Bottom line, it’s complicated.