Americans Aren’t Homeless Because of a Lack of Resources
When I was in my mid-twenties, I struggled mightily with my finances. It was a tough job market, I had very little experience and I was temperamentally unsuited to take orders from people that weren’t as smart as me. This led to a repeating pattern. I’d take some horrible job that didn’t pay a lot, struggle along, get sick of the idiocy at work and quit – oftentimes without having another job lined up. Although I had no savings and my car was a lemon that frequently broke down, I managed to limp along, barely paying my bills. Eventually, as my education in the school of hard knocks started to pay off, I concluded it was time to start getting ahead of the game. That led me to seriously considering planned homelessness. I figured I could get a membership at the YMCA, take showers there in the morning, work, exercise, kill time in the library, and then sleep in my car every night. I figured I could do that for 3 or 4 months, save up $2500 or so (which seemed like an ENORMOUS sum to me then) and then I could move back to an apartment and be way ahead of the game. It actually wasn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had, but my family was HORRIFIED by it and talked me out of doing it. So, I continued to struggle with money a bit longer until eventually, I moved to Alexandria, VA which had a much better job market, and finally built up my nest egg. So, I do believe that it is possible for just about anyone to be homeless. After all, how could I not believe it after almost getting to that point myself?
That being said, let’s ask a crucial question that very few people seem to ask. How are so many Americans NOT HOMELESS? The population of the United States is 328.2 million people and according to HUD, there are roughly 580,000 people that were homeless last year and 112,000 or so that are chronically homeless. In other words, 9,982 out of every 10,000 people in America ARE NOT homeless in a given year. Of those people that are homeless at some point, the vast majority of them manage to get back on their feet. Maybe they save money, a friend lets them crash, they get a 2nd job, their family takes them in, the government helps them – somehow, someway, they pull it together. In a sense, you’d have to expect this. After all, if we look at the numbers, we have to conclude that the overwhelming majority of criminals, along with dumb, irresponsible, crazy, irritating, and lazy people in the United States aren’t homeless and if the worst of the worst can consistently pull that off, being able to avoid homelessness can’t be too high of a bar. That doesn’t mean we should be indifferent to people that are temporarily homeless, far from it, but if life knocks people down hard and they manage to get back on their feet in a few months, it’s not the end of the world. These are the sort of people that homeless shelters and soup kitchens were made to serve. You’re temporarily homeless? That’s too bad. We don’t have the best place in the world to stay or the best food in the world to eat, but we do have SOMETHING to help keep you going until you pull yourself together in a few months.
Of course, those people aren’t really the ones most people think of when they think of “the homeless.” Instead, they’re thinking about the chronically homeless. The guys mumbling to themselves on the corner in New York. The people using the bathroom in the middle of the sidewalk in San Francisco. The bums begging people for change in DC. The filthy vagrants shooting up under bridges in Los Angeles.
If you want to solve that issue, the first thing we need to do is ask WHY those people are chronically homeless. The answer we tend to get back is, “Money! If we would just spend more money on the chronically homeless, the problem would disappear.” For example, the number 20 billion gets tossed around a lot. Apparently, that’s based on an unofficial HUD estimate from 2012 that’s now totally outdated. The real number is supposedly much, much higher, although there’s no official estimate.
However, is the problem really money? If we put 20, 50, or 100 billion dollars into solving homelessness, would the issue go away? No, it wouldn’t. Because after all, the government doesn’t have to spend ANYTHING to keep the majority of Americans off the street. In fact, a large portion of Americans not only pay for their own housing, they also pay taxes and give contributions that are used to help the homeless. So, why are the chronically homeless so hapless that year after year they can’t manage to get off the streets?
There are reasons for it. According to a HUD survey in 2015, 25% of the homeless (temporary and chronic) were seriously mentally ill and another 20% were mentally ill. In other words, 45% of the homeless have significant mental problems. Additionally, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless:
38% of homeless people are alcohol dependent, and 26% are dependent on other harmful chemicals.
Additionally, although few people will admit this, there is also probably some percentage of people that are chronically homeless not because of mental illness or substance abuse, but because they CHOOSE to live that lifestyle. Certainly, it’s not something most of us would find appealing, but living a simple life with no job, no possessions to maintain, no bills and no responsibilities other than getting through the day probably appeals to a small group of people. Some people WANT to be homeless.
So, what do you think is going to happen if you take severely mentally ill people, drug addicts, alcoholics, and people that want to be homeless and just buy homes for all of them? Over the short term, some of them would probably do better, but most of them still aren’t going to be able to successfully function because the fact that they are homeless is not the CAUSE of their problems, it’s a RESULT of their problems. Let me repeat that because it’s extremely important. Being homeless is not the CAUSE of their problems, it’s a RESULT of their problems. The fix for their problems is not a house, it’s to address what’s causing them to be homeless in the first place.
Unfortunately, that’s not so easy. If a junky wants to get clean, he has a chance of succeeding at a rehabilitation clinic. If someone who’s seriously mentally ill wants drugs that will make them functional, you can provide them. What happens if someone doesn’t want to get clean or get well? What if they just like living under a bridge with no responsibilities? If you spend enough money and stick at it long enough, you will have a few lost souls that decide to come in out of the cold, but if you want to actually solve the problem of chronic homelessness, you’ll never get there that way, no matter how much you spend. In fact, a lot of efforts made to help are undoubtedly exacerbating the problem of chronic homelessness overall by making it more tolerable. When it gets really bad, you have a place to stay, food, and in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, they even give out free needles to make it safer and easier to shoot up. For the temporarily homeless, those things may be a lifeline, but for the chronically homeless, you have to wonder if it’s something closer to enabling their destructive behavior.
We talk a lot about how horrible homelessness is in America, but the reality is that when it comes to chronic homelessness, the only way to actually solve the problem would be to help people IN SPITE OF THEMSELVES. We seem to have very little appetite for that as a society. Just as an example, here was the reaction in 2016 when then-Governor Andrew Cuomo required the police to bring the homeless into shelters in below-freezing temperatures:
“Everybody makes a New Year’s resolution or many people do. Well, this is a State’s New Year resolution, a New Year resolution for the State of New York and in many ways, its keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, right? Which makes it very simple” Cuomo says in an interview with NY1 Sunday morning. “It’s about love. It’s about compassion. It’s about helping one another and basic human decency.”
But human rights lawyers have criticized Cuomo’s executive order, saying it violates the autonomy of homeless citizens.
“We have a lot of legal concerns about how you force people off the street and into shelter,” advocate Judith Goldiner, head of the law reform unit at the Legal Aid Society, told The Wall Street Journal. “To the extent that they’re talking about arresting people who refuse, obviously we are completely opposed to that.”
This is the definition of compassion far too many people have when it comes to the homeless. “We’re willing to fight for your right to shoot heroin and have long hallucinatory conversations with your dead grandmother under a bridge in sub-freezing weather because we care about you!”
Only in the worst cases, after someone has committed another serious crime, are we willing to force people to sober up, get clean, or take their meds to make voices go away before forcing them to live in a halfway house, learn some life skills, get jobs, and get a place to live. Yet, if we really want to get rid of chronic homelessness, that’s what we would need to do across that whole population. Instead, we give people some soup, a place to stay a few nights per week, and tell them it’s okay to crap in the street, then we call that compassion. However, showing real compassion as a society would require us to help the homeless become functional human beings again, even if they’re not ready to do that because of the drugs they’re on or their mental problems. It’s fine if we’re not willing to go that route, but we should also accept that means we’ll never put an end to chronic homelessness without doing it, no matter how much money we spend.