In the Hampton Bubble, almost everybody we know or see has a home. It’s pretty easy to believe that homeless people are far and few between because of the hyper-privileged community in which we live. But in metropolitan and rural areas alike, homelessness has had augmented growth. How do people view the homeless? Do Americans see these people as panhandlers or violent criminals? Have these generalizations, whether from a communal or a national perspective, helped anybody or made the situation worse?
Our country has created an unlivable environment for hundreds of thousands of people, including children. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the four major drivers of homelessness are “ (i) the higher price of housing resulting from overregulation of housing markets; (ii) the tolerability of sleeping on the street (outside of shelter or housing); (iii) the supply of homeless shelters; and (iv) the characteristics of individuals in a community that make homelessness more likely.” Americans don’t choose to be homeless. They have been left with no other options. People experiencing homelessness are just like us–so why do we as a country dehumanize them?
Housing costs have skyrocketed in marginalized communities due to gentrification (the movement of corporate, predominately white business in typically diverse, poorer regions). As a result, people who are already disadvantaged due to poor public school funding, economic class disparities and racial prejudice are forced to move out of their neighborhoods. The minimum wage has not increased from $7.25 since 2009, even though inflation has increased by about 1.73% in the last decade. If we do not provide a strong public education to all of our American people or raise the minimum wage, it will become increasingly challenging for them to secure jobs with a livable pay.
A regularly overlooked component of this crisis is how disastrous the homeless veteran population is. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that in 2019, over thirty-five thousand veterans did not have housing. Our country frequently thanks those who fought for our nation, but we must mobilize our appreciation and take steps to provide some house security after deployment. The United States wears its patriotic reputation as a badge of honor- but is it patriotic to cast away those who sacrificed and served for us?
“Research has shown that individuals with severe mental illness, substance abuse problems, a history of incarceration, low incomes, and weak social ties are more likely to become homeless,” the Council reports. When Ronald Reagan repealed the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, mentally ill people were displaced from psychiatric centers and abandoned on the streets. Without basic treatment and security, it was like a death sentence. Since then, not only have homeless people been turned away from help because of uncontrollable conditions, mentally ill people were shunned and feared instead of being seen as human. This, along with the stigmas of being “addicts” or “criminals beyond salvaging”, have worsened problems instead of addressing them head-on. We have to remember that there are almost always external factors that we can help fix to prevent more crimes rather than incarcerating people who could still live a full life.
So, what can we do? There are plenty of food banks and kitchens in Pittsburgh you can volunteer at, or deliver to public housing, like Rainbow Kitchen or JFCS Squirrel Hill. Organize big donations, or donate some of your items to shelters. But most importantly, if we want to see actual change rather than simply reducing the severity of the issue, we must advocate for better education, housing, wages, and psychiatric treatment to our local and federal government. If we work together, we can help America be a real home for everyone.
The State of Homelessness in America
National Alliance to End Homelessness