Homelessness & America

Homelessness is, more than anything else, a social issue that pervades and seeps into the heart of prosperous America. It is the huge, ugly and misplaced elephant in an otherwise affluent, well-decorated room. Nobody wants to see this elephant, and more disappointingly, nobody wants to acknowledge its ubiquitous presence. A home is a basic human right. The right to adequate housing is recognized as a basic and fundamental human right in many sources of international human rights law.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [Art. 25(1)] adopted by the United Nations in 1948, it is stated that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [or herself] and of his [or her] family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his [or her] control.

” The statistics gathered by the National Coalition for the Homeless is staggering. Over the course of a year, between 2. 3 and 3. 5 million people experience homelessness nationwide and approximately 166,000 people experience homelessness in the Chicago Metropolitan area. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development defines homelessness as an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate residence.

The definition also include an individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations; or an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings. The causes of homelessness are multiple and complex. There is often a lot of focus on personal problems which can be contributing factors, but do not alone cause homelessness.

There is the larger systemic problem that our economic and political systems fail to promote justice and equality. Furthermore, there is institutionalized racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination which create barriers to economic advancement. Homelessness has been here since time immemorial. During the industrial revolution, although colonial-era seaports had their share of mobility, an explosion of migration was ignited in the early 19th century by rapid population growth, innovations in transportation, the diffusion of production for markets, the rise of waged employment, and the relentless extension of the frontier.

By mid-century, novel economic vulnerabilities and opportunities had created a new logic of livelihood for many common citizens that were at odds with community stability. Indeed, economic expansion and modernization demanded legions of rootless workers. (Baumohl, 1996, p. 7) Then the great depression in the 1930s came. Jobs were extremely scarce, prices exponentially increased, and people started to lose their way of living. The economy eventually improved but somehow the housing, or lack thereof, situation did not. Worse, as the economy improved, the propensity of being homeless increased.

This paper will focus on homelessness in Illinois as it is one of the states in the country with a severe homeless problem. In fundamental ways, the homeless in Illinois differ little from the homeless elsewhere in the country: They are victims of economic recession and deindustrialization; they confront a shortage of affordable housing; and a significant percentage of them have histories of institutionalization in mental hospitals or prisons. They are marginal members of society who do not have the benefit of support networks provided by primary groups.

(1990, p. 69) Foremost in the list of causes of homelessness in Illinois is rooted in economy —skyrocketing housing costs amplified by unemployment or underemployment. National Low-Income Housing Coalition data indicated that overall, 78 percent of low income households in Illinois have housing problems; 72 percent have cost burdens over 30 percent; 54 percent are extremely cost burdened, paying more than 50 percent of household income for housing. The National Jobs Council stated that nearly half of Illinois residents earn $25,000 a year or less.

Furthermore, a 2003 report on Illinois poverty manifested that Illinois’s long-term unemployment rate is 20 percent; 80,000 people have been unemployed for at least six months. In order to address this, there is need to arrest the upward slope of housing costs. It is just a simple supply and demand formula. There is a need to increase the supply for housing needs in order to quell the demand. For every new affordable housing unit built, two are lost to demolition, conversion or abandonment. Statewide, more than 200,000 affordable rental units are at risk of loss.

In just the next five years, approximately 39,000 subsidized multi-family units may be lost. The federal government of Illinois needs to invest more in affordable housing. Its capital budget should include affordable housing. California spends three times more per capita in affordable housing than Illinois. Florida spends seven times more. Massachusetts has recently included an average of $125 million a year for affordable housing in its capital budget. Illinois could construct new supportive housing units, which provide permanent affordable housing with support services for those who have been homeless or have special needs.

The lack of affordable housing in job-rich areas contributes to increased rates of absenteeism, worker turnover, and lost productivity. Business costs are being driven up as a result. Capital budget funding could create new housing near jobs and opportunity. With this kind of infrastructure investment, it is like hitting two birds with one stone. Housing construction and rehabilitation create good high-wage jobs around the state. Furthermore, several initiatives from the legislative front have been proposed to address the widening chasm between housing cost and an individual’s income.

HB 2206, the Rental Housing Support Program, proposes to create a state rental subsidy program to make rents affordable to households earning less than $21,000 a year. $2 million in funding was allocated for the Homelessness Prevention Program, which provides emergency grants and services to keep people in housing who are at risk of homelessness. HB 220, the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeals Act, created a state housing appeals board that could overrule local zoning decisions that discriminated against the development of affordable housing.

Unfortunately however, the largest opposition is coming from the real estate industry. The myopic view of the industry sees these initiatives as an infringement on their rights to make decisions about to whom to rent and when they can sell their buildings. They also expressed some concerns on legislation that was leaning towards more protection for the tenant. As with any other issue, stakeholders need to have the proper education to enlighten them on the spirit of the initiatives put forth.

Moreover, as long as these kinds of resistance exist, moving forward in the issue of homelessness would have to be taken in small steps rather the much needed huge leaps to address the dire situation immediately. More grassroots support must be built around housing issues throughout the state so that when legislation and government support encounters a hurdle, there is another route that can keep the propositions going. The issue on homelessness has gained some ground but not enough ground to really settle the issue and obliterate it in the future. There are some individuals who have championed the cause on homelessness.

Dr. Karen Maloney has a “Care on Wheels” program wherein she provides free medical care to the homeless and displaced in Chicago’s west side who are more often than not lack health insurance. (Pierce, 2006, p. 1) In DuPage county in Illinois, Bob Wahlgren and Mark Milligan started out as volunteers at shelters for homeless people. In 1988, they founded Bridge Communities, Inc. , a not-for profit transitional housing corporation. They did not tolerate homelessness and combined with their fervor with business experience, established a program that offered affordable housing to 85 families.

More than providing homes, they provide a support system for these families. (Bendis, 1998) Initiatives have been in place. But there is still a lot of work to be done. Individuals bridging the gap, trying to fill the void left by institutional or governmental programs are a strong start. There is a need to keep it pushing and even shoving it forward. Barriers must be lifted. This issue must be attacked on all fronts — socially, economically, behaviorally, among others. Housing should be made a priority in legislation, and in capital budgets of federal governments.

Jobs should be made available. The real estate industry should be educated to decrease its resistance to low-cost housing programs. If resolution of the issue warrants baby steps instead of huge leaps, then so be it. After all, a fairly large number of small steps will eventually amount to one huge leap.


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