On any given night in the United States there are around 553,000 individuals who are homeless, and from that an estimated 360,000 individuals live in homeless shelters. The U.S. department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as someone who does not have a proper home to sleep in and instead finds cover in public property such as homeless shelters, campgrounds, train stations or city streets. People with mental disorders have a hard time holding down a job and earning enough money to afford a house.
The government could help a segment of the population by providing mental health counselors, psychiatrists and a proper apartment to help the homeless reintegrate into society and end homelessness in the United States.
Cities in the U.S. are struggling with the homeless population and have seen an upsurge in the past few years. Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles have a high ranking of many people living on the city streets.
Honolulu, Portland and Boston are close to the top as well, with countless people unable to obtain affordable housing. In addition to high rent, surveys were done and have found that one in four people who are homeless have a mental disorder or suffer from an alcohol issue. People with mental disorders have a hard time holding down a job and earning enough money to afford a house.
Many homeless people engage in criminal activity such as beg for money (a crime in many cities), jump the turnstile at the subway station and pickpocket, and some of them commit more serious crimes like breaking into private properties, assault and murder.
In addition, living outdoors exposes them to harsh weather, unclean living conditions and malnutrition. They are also more susceptible to illnesses, like AIDS, bronchitis and pneumonia. It is unsafe for homeless people to live in open areas and unsafe for the inhabitants of the town because of the crimes that some of the homeless commit. Therefore, it is imperative that the government help the homeless population.
Different officials in the government in various cities are trying to tackle the issue, but to no avail. In New York City, Mayor De Blasio is not doing much to help fix the situation. Although he did offer financial support to those on the brink of eviction, the Mayor rejected to make affordable housing available for the homeless. Governor Cuomo has allotted financial aid as well to help the homeless and had recruited 500 MTA officers to get the homeless out of train stations. Yet, his efforts to help the homeless failed; in the past few years the number of people sleeping in shelters went up 60%. In 2016, Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler promised that under his leadership he would help the city get rid of the homeless problem.
However, there were not enough beds in the shelters for the homeless, and the 2019 Point in Time Count found there was 2,037 people in Portland who did not have a place to sleep at night, and therefore were sleeping on sidewalks, in tents and in cars. Additionally, Honolulu has many unsheltered people taking up residence on the sidewalks. Honolulu’s Mayor Kirk Caldwell, in an effort to help, passed two bills: “One bill makes it illegal to block the sidewalk from six in the morning until ten at night. A second bill takes it even further and makes it illegal to lodge or live on a sidewalk or other public areas.” Any individuals caught not following the new laws are thrown into jail. Unfortunately, Mayor Caldwell’s attempts only relocated the problem to other parts of town as opposed to helping the homeless. Putting laws in place to remove the homeless or giving money to help without a clear objective does not help solve the problem.
Countries and even cities in the U.S. have found a way to solve the issue for good. The initiative is called Housing First. It was developed by Sam Tsemberis in the 1990s. First, the homeless are placed in affordable and permanent apartments. Then they are offered services such as mental health counselors, psychiatrists and nurses to help them solve their problems so they can rebuild their lives. They do not have to be sober before receiving an apartment. Furthermore, officials track data to see if emergency room visits, jail time and psychiatric hospitalization went down after they joined the program.
Houston, Texas, for example, had a count of 8,538 homeless people in 2011. That year many officials worked together to try to solve the problem. One of the first ways they tackled the issue was to create permanent housing. Since 2011, the city has built around 4,300 apartments and located thousands of families and individuals in permanent homes. Once the homeless were placed in an apartment, health officials were assigned to address their needs so they could get back on their feet and support themselves. This is a shift from their approach before where it was mainly private organizations helping them through providing free meals and shelter. Their efforts paid off, and in 2019, the homeless count went down to 3,900 people.
Denver, Colorado, is also dealing with a large homeless population. A lot of homeless people are living in tents on the sidewalk and crowding the city streets. People thought that the homeless chose to live their lives outside and there was no way to fix the dilemma. Yet in 2016, Mayor Michael Hancock challenged those assumptions. He launched the Supportive Housing Program to assist the homeless. The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and the Mental Health Center of Denver work together with mental health counselors and police officers to help people who are homeless through placing them in a permanent house and then addressing their needs such as addiction or unemployment. To date they have placed 400 people in homes.
Other countries in the world such as Helsinki, Finland, have almost eliminated the homeless problem through implementing the Housing First philosophy. Walking through the subways there are no homeless individuals asking for money or setting up their blankets to sleep. Deputy Mayor of Helsinki Sanna Vesikansa explains how when she was younger there were so many people living on the streets and now, ‘…we don’t have it anymore. Street homelessness doesn’t exist in Helsinki.’ Finland was trying to tackle the problem for many years. In 1987, there were around 18,000 homeless people, and in 2017, there was an estimated 6,600 people who did not have a home, yet the majority were living in short term housing or by family. The government help the homeless by providing them with the support they need, as opposed to just putting them in homeless shelters. From 2007, the government instituted “Housing First” principles. When someone in Helsinki becomes homeless the government provides them with their own home as soon as possible. Then each individual can get more help that they need. Since most homeless people suffer from an addiction or a mental disorder, a counselor or psychiatrist is put on the case to assist them. The counselor or psychiatrist also encourage them to further their education, acquire a new skill, or receive training so they can get a job. Once they have a permanent home and are being helped by a mental health professional, they can build up their lives again and join society and they will not backslide into their previous ways.
Norway also implemented the “Housing First” innovation and saw a decline in the homeless population. At first, the homeless who had addictions or mental disorders had to get help before they were able to receive a house. Disturbingly, the number of homeless people was not going down. To solve the problem of homelessness many municipalities in Norway put into place Housing First. An individual first is given a house in a residential area even if they have a severe issue or addiction and show no motivation to change their habits. After that, welfare authorities, psychiatrists and mental health counselors follow up with them to help and see how they are doing. Trondheim, Norway, has seen a great improvement after implementing this program, a 58% decline in the city’s homeless population.
Some officials say executing Housing First in their city is not worth it because this method costs a lot of money. However, evidence has shown that Housing First reduces emergency room visits, detox center visits and jail time. This saves money in the long run and helps abolish the problem. Others believe that homeless people need to work on their mental issues and addictions first and prove they can live in an apartment before receiving an apartment. Research shows that when homeless people are given a permanent home, they then have an easier time to deal with other issues they are facing and will slowly be able to support themselves. “A Housing First program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2007 and 2008 showed favorable results for people who had been homeless for five years or longer and were also struggling with mental health and substance use challenges”.