The state of American homelessness
Welcome to the Counterparties email. The sign-up page is here, it’s just a matter of checking a box if you’re already registered on the Reuters website. Send suggestions, story tips and complaints to Counterparties.Reuters@gmail.com.
On any given night, more than 600,000 Americans are homeless; one in four, or 138,000, are children. Nationally, homelessness has fallen 9% since 2007, according to the most recent statistics from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The number of chronically homeless has dropped 25% in the past six years, while the homeless veteran population overall is down 24%.
Over the same time period, however, homelessness has increased by more than 20% in Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and Washington, DC. In 2013, the New York shelter system population “hovered around a record 50,000 overall. Nearly half are children”.
The NYT’s Andrea Elliott profiles of one of those children, 11-year old Dasani, whom Elliott dubs an “invisible child”. From the shelter where she has lived a quarter of her life, Dasani can see the Empire State Building — “It makes me feel like there’s something going on out there”, she says — but the conditions she lives in are atrocious. A city inspector documented the rotting walls and mice infestation, concluding starkly, “Please assist… There is infant in room”.
The Economist attributes the decline in America’s homeless population to smart government policy. In 2009, $1.5 billion in stimulus funds was allocated to helping people on the brink of homelessness stay in their home by paying back rent and utility bills, which saves taxpayer money “because helping those in short-term financial straits to stay in their homes is cheaper than keeping them in shelters until they can rent again”. As the rental market becomes increasingly squeezed, the benefit of this type of assistance increases.
There are also proposals for incremental, nudge-inspired programs aimed at helping the already homeless, such as lockers to securely store property. The idea is to solve the very real problem of having to look for work while being unable to leave your possessions unattended.
Tracey Ross, the author of a recent Center for American Progress report on homelessness, thinks a broader approach is necessary. Traditional approaches like focusing on affordable housing need to be complemented with increased funding for programs like food stamps and Temporary Aid to Needy Families. Wages should also be addressed, says Ross: “almost half of homeless people in this country work but do not earn enough income to pay for housing”.
Homelessness isn’t just about housing; it’s also about health. Jeff Foreman says that it’s a public health issue; the New England Journal of Medicine calls it an “extraordinarily aggravating condition for numerous chronic conditions”. Harold Pollack cites a recent study that found providing housing to homeless hospital patients saved an average of $6,307 annually. And Annie Lowrey reports that it’s much harder to treat patients who are eligible for Medicare when they’re homeless. The homeless, it seems, are too easily hidden not just from daily sight, but also from those tasked with helping them. — Ben Walsh
On to today’s links: