The homeless represent the most vulnerable portion of Americans living in poverty. The richest country in the world has almost 600,000 homeless while housing units sit vacant across the U.S. California has the largest homeless population with approximately 114,000 which represents about twenty percent of the total homeless population in the U.S. You may ask yourself how does a state who has the largest economy in the U.S., boasting a $3.137 trillion gross state product as of 2019, have a homeless problem? In fact, if California were a sovereign nation (2020), it would rank as the world’s sixth largest economy, ahead of the UK and behind India. Homelessness takes a toll on the economy, environment, health care and criminal justice systems, and thTe lives of fellow human beings. This is a dichotomy that must be solved.
What causes homelessness? The Bay Area is home to some of the wealthiest and most expensive places to live in the world. In the shadow of this great wealth, thousands of people are homeless and many thousands more live below the poverty line on the verge of homelessness. There are many reasons people can become homeless: a traumatic event, loss of a job, the inability to pay for needed healthcare, or a criminal background got in the way of finding a job.
How do people become homeless? Top reasons people become homeless:
- 31% job loss
- 20% drugs or alcohol use
- 15% divorce or separation
- 13% an argument with a family member who asked them to leave
- 7% domestic violence
- 10% eviction
- 7% mental health
- 7% physical health or medical condition
- 12% incarceration
- 1% housing restrictions due to probation or parole
What could prevent homelessness? When asked what would have prevented their homelessness, respondents reported:
- 34% employment assistance
- 31% rental assistance
- 28% drug or alcohol counseling
- 19% mental health services
How is homelessness defined? Any person living in a temporary location, such as a shelter or a place not fit for human habitation (encampment, car, abandoned building, etc.), is considered homeless, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Targeted Homeless Population. Homelessness affects our communities on a national, regional and local level. On the macro level, SWIM serves the homeless population in general with services to prevent homelessness and provide programs to remove individuals and families out of poverty and homelessness. On the micro level, we focus our efforts on three particular populations—veterans (represents over 15,000 of the homeless population), single women with children and emancipating foster care youth.
Homeless Services. During the time of Covid-19, the homeless are even more vulnerable. The SWIM team has begun to solicit donations of backpacks, hand sanitizers, toiletries, face masks, socks, housing and meal vouchers, tents and cellular phones. The backpacks would be used to store all of these essential items and are called Life Packs. These services will be administered under the Stop Homelessness Now program which is expected to launch in the 3rd Quarter of 2020. The program will also include a component that employs the homeless that gets them out of their homeless situation.
SEPARATING FACT FROM FICTION
Myth: The cause of homelessness is drug and alcohol abuse.
False. Only 20% of people report drugs and alcohol as the cause of their homelessness. Drug and alcohol abuse are often the result of homelessness, not the cause.
Myth: Homelessness is a choice. Most homeless people choose to live on the streets.
False. According to the Homeless Census in Santa Clara County, 93% of homeless respondents want affordable housing.
The biggest barrier to housing is affordable rent.
- 68% couldn’t afford rent
- 50% had no work or income
- 38% reported no available housing
- 20% had criminal records that prevented their access to housing
Myth: Homeless people don’t need cell phones. Cell phones are a luxury.
False. Cell phones are a lifeline for people experiencing homelessness and are sometimes their only connection to family, services, housing and employment.
Myth: Homeless people move to the Bay Area because of the weather.
False. Most homeless individuals in are native to the County they are homeless in.
Homeless people are lazy. Why don’t they just get a job? Homeless people spend every moment struggling to find their next meal, shower and shelter. Most homeless people experience overwhelming barriers to employment. Common barriers include criminal backgrounds, lack of internet access to reply to job opportunities, a lack of transportation to interviews and job fairs and not having access to a shower and clean clothing.
Should I give homeless panhandlers money? The basis of our model sprouted from this very problem: how do we decrease panhandling? Giving panhandlers money is a personal choice, and also a temporary fix. We suggest handing them an address to a shelter, a pair of socks, or another resource.
Why do they sleep on the streets, buses and in cars? Sleeping in a shelter seems like an obvious solution to being on the street. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Shelters can be quite difficult to get into; usually they require lots of paperwork and all parties must comply with the program, which doesn’t always fit their needs or beliefs.
Another common barrier for homeless individuals is having a companion animal. Pets are generally not allowed in temporary housing or shelters. We can’t blame someone for turning down a shelter if their best friend, and possibly only family, isn’t allowed to come with them.
Other reasons include:
- There are not enough beds
- There are more men’s shelters than women’s
- They don’t always know where to find the closest shelter
- They have to think about whether they have the energy or the means to make the trek to the closest shelter. Choosing between spending money on bus fare versus eating is a hard, daily choice.
People who are homeless are constantly in survival mode and thinking of two things:
- Their health
- Their safety
Buses are warm during cold seasons and cool during hot seasons. Getting sick while being homeless is bad news, especially if adequate medical coverage is not available (this is the case for many homeless people). Buses are also safe, and a person may manage to get a good hour or two of sleep on a long bus line. Sleep is a necessity that’s difficult to come by when safety is top priority. Often, sleeping on the streets makes a person vulnerable to theft and abuse. Naturally, people try to stay awake at night to protect themselves and the few personal items they have. These circumstances can also extend to shelters.