To answer the question posed by the title of this post: Homelessness occurs when a person or family can no longer maintain their housing.
There are probably those individuals who would belabor the point and tell me that folks become homeless because of some addition disorder or mental health issue. And, ordinarily I might conceivably agree with them that those can be contributing factors as to the "whys and wherefores."
But, those aren’t the only reasons.
Homelessness can befall anyone for any number of reasons. Among those reasons are: loss of employment; unforeseen medical emergencies; divorce; domestic violence and so on.
However, that still doesn’t change the reality that homelessness occurs when folks can no longer maintain their housing. That’s just the long and the short of it.
Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more headlines which talk about the "new face of homelessness." More times than not, what they are referring to is the growing numbers of families which are finding themselves homeless.
In fact, the Washington Post recently reported that HUD’s latest Annual Homeless Assessment Report indicated that there has been an overall increase in family homelessness of 9 percent. In non-urbanized, rural areas family homelessness has increased by an alarming 56 percent.
All the same, however, family homelessness is not a new phenomenon. The number of families which are finding themselves without a home has been growing steadily since the 1980’s.
And guess what?
The cause of their homelessness has very little to do with addiction disorders, substance abuse or mental health issues.
In November of 1998, New York University issued a press release outlining the reasons for family homelessness: the lack of affordable housing.
Here’s a bit of what the press release had to say:
"New York University researchers, following poor and homeless New Yorkers for five years, found that the main cause of family homelessness is the scarcity of affordable housing. Furthermore, their study found that drug addiction, mental illness and other social problems were not main causes of homelessness among families living in NYC."
What I found most interesting was something said by NYU Psychology Professor, Marybeth Shinn who – along with Professor Beth C. Weitzman of NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service – authored the report:
"For the last six years, government and private foundations have worked under the assumption that behavioral disorders are the root cause of homelessness and that an individual cannot be stably housed until these disorders have been addressed.
Our research refutes that assumption. We found that subsidized housing succeeds in curing homelessness among families, regardless of behavioral disorders or other conditions. Whatever their problems – substance abuse, mental illness, physical illness or a history of incarceration – nearly all of the families in our study became stably housed when they received subsidized housing.
Our research indicates that homelessness is not a permanent condition. People do get themselves out of the problem. But it only happens when some intervention occurs that provides them with access to the housing market."
In particular I noted the very last sentence about intervention which helps assist folks accessing housing.
All of which brings me to a Reuters article I read less than a week ago. It mentioned that the apartment vacancy rate across the U.S. had reached its highest level since 1987.
According to that article,
"When free months of rent and other incentives landlords are using to lure tenants are factored in, effective rent was down 1.9 percent from the prior year and 0.9 percent from the first quarter [of the year]…"
What I wonder is why local governments are not offering those landlords incentives of their own: incentives to convert some of those units into affordable, low-income housing units which can be subsidized by the Federal Section 8 program? And since the landlord would still be receiving a far market value per unit, it isn’t as though they are going to be losing money.
Let’s face it – an empty apartment does no one the slightest bit of good.
So many cities are trying to figure out how to get the funding to building permanent housing for their local area homeless. But, why worry about building from scratch when there are so many "empty" units which already exist?
Conversion would be far more cost effective.
It would help those landlords get their vacancies filled. In addition, it would provide a way for homeless families to get off the streets and back into permanent housing.
To me that’s a win-win solution.