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A wake-up call on homelessness

Flickr- Rebecca Gaines

Last week Hawaii declared a “state of emergency” on homelessness.

Wait what? I thought state of emergencies were reserved for natural disasters? Floods, hurricanes, mudslides….

via GIPHY

Well, that’s usually the case. But declaring a state of emergency on homelessness has become a new strategy “that may jar cities and systems out of what for many has become a new normal,” according to The Guardian . In the last two months, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon have also declared states of emergency in order to address their city’s homelessness crisis head-on.

And it is a crisis. A 2014 report found that there are around 600,000 homeless people in the US. Nearly 200,000 of the country's homeless are entirely unsheltered, close to 50,000 are veterans and 45,000 are unaccompanied children and youth. Los Angeles found that around one-third of their homeless population suffered from a form of mental illness, and another one-fifth were victims of domestic abuse. In other words, people who are most in need of specialized care are now among the world’s most vulnerable. Being homeless greatly lowers an individual’s life expectancy and jeopardizes their health, while greatly raising their chances of suffering violent assault.  

Of course, the problem extends far beyond the US. While it is extremely difficult to grasp global statistics on homelessness, in 2005 the United Nations estimated there were some 100 million homeless people worldwide. The 15 cities with the highest rates of homelessness in the world are as far-flung as Manila in the Philippines, Moscow, Mumbai, and Buenos Aires. It is a global epidemic.  

Homeless moscow.jpgHomeless sleep near LUKOIL in Moscow.
Image: Wikimedia Commons- Sergei Dorokhovsky

In some countries homelessness can largely be attributed to natural disasters, like flooding in Africa, or to internal conflicts, as is the case in Ukraine, where the war has left around 1 million people homeless.

But in the US, the majority of people are homeless because of poverty, lack of affordable housing, eroding work opportunities and the nation’s declining public assistance. And this is in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  As one Huffington Post editorial argued, homelessness isn’t an invisible problem, it’s a highly visible but largely ignored and marginalized epidemic, where problematic stereotypes abound. Too often people dismiss homeless people as drug addicts, alcoholics or, worse yet, people simply too lazy to work hard. The reality is far more complicated and directly related to the lack of living-wage job opportunities and public assistance like affordable childcare and housing. And homelessness affects us all, as citizen tax dollars foot the bill when, for example, a homeless person needs to receive care in an emergency room.

Which is why Hawaii’s move to declare a state of emergency over homelessness is such a major step. It’s directly acknowledging a problem that the country has, on the whole, become extremely complacent about.

Declaring a state of emergency on homelessness is not only important symbolically, but also logistically facilitates how the problem can be addressed. State of emergencies allow governments to tap into extra funds and cut through other bureaucratic red tape like zoning codes to allow for more housing.

In September, Los Angeles became the first city to ever declare a state of emergency on homelessness, and it allowed the city’s mayor to direct $13 million to housing subsidies and keep winter shelters open for an additional two months. For Hawaii, the announcement means the state can quickly create shelters for families in need.

Homeless shelter before storm.jpgA homeless shelter in Missouri stays open ahead of an expected storm.
Image: Flickr- KOMUnews

Of course, while declaring a state of emergency will help, it’s still a band-aid for a bullet wound. As one New Yorker article noted, “Our system has a fundamental bias towards dealing with problems only after they happen, rather than spending up front to prevent their happening in the first place.” Hawaii’s move is a perfect example of this, finding a way to help people who are already homeless without addressing the factors that cause homelessness in the first place.

How could governments be more efficient about cutting to the chase?

In 2005, Utah created a program where they basically just gave homeless people their own homes. It was a total flip on the traditional logic, which says homeless people should stay in shelters until they are “ready” for a house. But Utah found that their solution was not just less costly--shelters, emergency-room visits and police (all directly related to homelessness) are expensive!--but more effective in helping people recover. It’s unlikely someone with addiction will get better, or a person who was laid-off will find another job, while living in an environment as unstable, stressful, and unappealing as a temporary shelter. With the stability of their own house, people are more likely to actively improve their situation. Utah’s pilot programs found that those given a home were five times less likely to become homeless again than those who stayed in shelters.

Could it be that simple? To solve homelessness worldwide just give everyone in the world a home!

Well, not exactly. There are a lot of ways to poke holes in the feasibility of such a solution, especially in areas where natural disasters occur. But it’s worth using Utah as an example of what can happen when the world is proactive rather than reactive. Imagine if a similar thinking was extended to domestic welfare or international aid, so that instead of sending money to repair the damages of conflicts or failed systems and state infrastructures, country’s invested that money upfront to decrease the likelihood of such issues to begin with.

Specifically regarding homelessness, both the case of Utah and news of Hawaii serve to remind the world that it is time to change the prevailing mentality and to see homelessness for what it really is: a world crisis that merits proactive solutions.