Imagine a life of prosperity, success and health all taken from you within months, not by your own doing but by circumstance. For Kai Mooney, that scenario was his reality. His path toward homelessness began with a thriving life that many Americans can relate to. He had a wife, owned two small businesses, had two cars, and was healthy. Suddenly, the latter began to deteriorate and so did his financial security. He lost his driver’s license, job and wife all within months; he was homeless and averaging two to three seizures a week. Now, he and his dog Savannah are trying to get by on the streets of Washington D.C. advocating one mission: spread awareness about the plight of homelessness in America.
The Housing Crisis & Homelessness
Many Americans share a story similar to Kai’s, and the most prominent cause of this is a lack of affordable housing. An average individual on a minimum wage income cannot afford a one or two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent and because of the foreclosure crisis, “over 12.8% of the nation’s supply of low income housing has been permanently lost since 2011,” the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty notes. When foreclosures occur, individuals as well as whole families are affected.
“We are seeing a dramatic increase in family homelessness,” senior attorney Tristia Bauman of the NLCHP told Townhall. “Because of the foreclosure crisis there are fewer dollars in the pot to provide. You have families who become underwater as a result of what’s happening in their neighborhoods. People who lost their homes, they were also unable to get loans. They are competing for units in the housing market. Even people who are employed full time are now unable to afford housing.”
According to Bauman, urbanization is another issue that affects the homeless. It’s now trendy for workers to live in the city as opposed to the suburbs, which turns urban living into a more wealthy and upper-class phenomenon. “This,” she said, “is pushing people out of urban centers where they have access to services.” Thus, the need for shelters is rising, but the quality of homeless shelters is also deteriorating.
Nowhere to Go
“The Los Angeles City and County CoC … estimates that there are only 11,933 shelter beds to serve its homeless population of 53,798 people,” according to a report by the NLCHP. Thus, a whopping 77 percent of its homeless population is left with no place to live but on the streets. This problem isn’t unique to Los Angeles County, however; cities all across America do not have enough shelters to house their homeless population.
One doesn’t realize the magnitude of a safe and secure place to live until it is gone, something Kai can attest to. In fact, homeless shelters have left him with head lice and not enough space. “I don’t go to shelters,” he said, “I’ve stayed in a shelter one time and I got head lice. Shelters are full of scabies, infectious bacteria and foot fungus. It’s the worse condition you can absolutely imagine. Hundreds of people are crammed into tight spaces together being forced to shower together. It’s very similar to a prison.”
Kai also touched on how homeless shelters require being on a waiting list, and when a person does get on the shelter’s wait list they have to be there exactly on time. If they don’t adhere to the timing they could get kicked out of the shelter for up to a year. The government has failed to effectively serve the homeless, and in some regards has criminalized their behavior. It’s well past time for an agenda that actually helps them get back on their feet.
Criminalization of the Homeless
“With inadequate housing or shelter options, many homeless people are forced to live [outside] and in public places,” the NLCHP report continues. “Despite this fact, many local governments have chosen to remove visibly homeless people from our shared streets, parks, and other public places by treating the performance of basic human behaviors - like sitting down, sleeping, and bathing – as criminal activities.”
Imagine the difference in the life of the homeless if they knew where they could sleep at night. “Seventy-four-percent of homeless people do not know a place where it is safe and legal for them to sleep,” according to the report, leaving them at risk to be criminalized. These criminalizing laws are enacted with the hopes that this will be a solution to homelessness forcing them to not “choose” to live on the streets.
None of this is solving anything, however. Rather, it is making it worse both for the homeless and for the average American. The Western Regional Advocacy Project and their partners collected nationwide data from homeless people and found that of the 1,600 homeless people they interviewed, 80 percent reported being harassed by police for sleeping in public.
In Hawaii, one lawmaker went so far as to smash the carts of the homeless with a sledgehammer, Kevin Korinth, research fellow in Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told Townhall. “If we demand cleaner cities that simply are about getting rid of the homeless, we’ll get things like criminalization,” he said.
And unfortunately, it’s only getting worse. In 2011 and 2014 the NLCHP collected data from 187 U.S. cities looking at the number of local laws that criminalize the life-sustaining behaviors of homeless people. The study concluded that since 2011, the number of harassment citings has skyrocketed.
These harassments were anything from sleeping and loitering to sitting down. More than half of cities surveyed placed a ban on sitting or lying down in particular places, which has increased by 43 percent in the past four years, the study found.
Criminalization laws are costing cities and taxpayers a tremendous amount of money, too. “The annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for an average homeless individual was $16, 670,” the report found, whereas providing a modest place to live and access to a social worker cost roughly $11,000. Rather than addressing the causes of homelessness and helping people escape life on the streets, criminalization “creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back,” the NLCHP notes.
Criminalizing the homeless also takes away from the solution to homelessness, leaving these individuals seen as unsafe, when in actuality all many are looking for is a place to rest. They yearn for shelter, and in not being able to find it, are punished. “People have this idea in their head that we did this to ourselves, that we deserve this and we are homeless because we are being punished somehow,” Kai said. “That we did not do the right thing when we had the chance and that’s why we are here.”
There is, however, a solution to a lack of affordable housing and criminalization. Organizations like the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty are taking positive steps to help empower and improve the lives of each homeless individual. One of these solutions is Title V of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which “allows vacant federal property to be deeded or leased for free to eligible groups for the purpose of housing or providing services to people who are homeless,” NLCHP explains.
Title V is the only federal law that deals directly with homelessness. “The way that the law is written allows it to be provided first to homelessness if the groups assisting the homeless submit a proper application and go through a process,” Bauman said. Title V also saves taxpayers money by reducing the maintenance and operations costs of unused federal properties.
The Problem With Title V
Unfortunately, there are a lot of improvements that need to be made to Title V before it can get better for the homeless. For example, not enough information has been provided for the application process for homeless service providers and there are only 90 days to get the application in.
In addition, a lack of knowledge about Title V is a clear problem for the homeless. There is a deep lack of meaningful outreach and advertisement to inform the public about the law. The government ought to conduct outreach about Title V, but so far, it hasn’t. Fortunately, however, Bauman told Townhall that reforms are taking place.
Empowering the Homeless
In addition to reforms, more must also be done to empower the homeless and thus improve their lives. “I certainly want to end homelessness, but that goal can be very costly,” Korinth told Townhall. “With our scarce amount of resources, we should be using those resources to help empower other people.”
Korinth outlined five different ways to help empower the homeless depending on each individual: housing, employment, addressing substance and mental issues, and integrating themselves into a family and community. First, in order to maintain stable living, the homeless individual must get off the streets into some sort of stable place to sleep. Second, these individuals need to find meaning through their work and contribution to society. Third, substance issues must be addressed. Fourth, mental illness must also be addressed. Lastly, the homeless must be integrated into a family or community. Korinth said that this last aspect is somewhat neglected: “When the family connections are there, we must try to re-attach these people, and there needs to be a lot more emphasis on this.”
In 2004 the Bush administration set forth an agenda to help the homeless. Contrary to most beliefs that conservatives don’t want to help the homeless, President Bush established Housing First, which urges authorities to concentrate resources on moving the homeless into housing immediately.
Basically, with Housing First there are no strings attached for the homeless to comply with treatment. “I care most about the service model as opposed to the outcomes that we achieve [through] them,” Korinth said. “I care about housing as a right. Housing as a right comes at a high cost and that means there’s less money to be spent elsewhere.”
While housing may come at a high cost, it is one that’s well worth it. At first glance, housing these individuals seems to be working, as the number of chronically homeless has indeed declined by 30 percent between 2005 and 2007; and since 2007, the number has dropped another 19 percent, CNN reports based on data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While this reduction does not take away from the criminalization and harassment of the homeless, this does show that by focusing on housing the homeless, there is indeed a long-term reduction in homelessness.
Every Person has Value
“We can’t think of these people as a problem. Every single human being has that potential and value that needs to be valued so they can achieve their full potential,” Korinth said. By addressing each of the aforementioned steps, society is closer to valuing these individuals as people who have the capability to make a positive impact on the world and not just problems for society to deal with.
The cry from the homeless has a need to be heard and there is more that each individual can do than merely passing them by. Awareness of Title V enables homeless advocates to properly establish the means to acquire these unused federal properties and provide for the homeless. Then comes housing, and with housing comes a reduction to the number on the streets. If we care and advocate for the homeless we are showing love, a need that every individual has. In the words of Kai, "just because you see someone as scary, don't let that push you away from getting to know that person.” Let us take the fervent plight of homelessness and carry on the mission of awareness and put an end to this cry.