#overCOVID: Supporting the Homeless
As unemployment continues to cripple our communities due to COVID’s aftermath, a lot of people have come to realize that when you get hit with bad luck, housing can become a luxury that’s really hard to afford. Many of the nonprofits on POINT serve people experiencing homelessness in our cities. As volunteers, our hearts are in the right place and we get involved because we care about people who are homeless and want to impact the world for the better. But we need to make sure that we are treating all people with dignity and respect — the people we’re serving, our fellow volunteers, and our nonprofit leaders.
We’re taking a look at homelessness—what contributes to it, and who can be affected. We need to understand the complexities before jumping in so we are helping from a place of humanistic empathy. If we can all better understand what it means to be homeless, and why it is a major issue in the United States, then we can be better neighbors to our whole community. Plus, you can’t #stayhome if you don’t have one. Because of COVID, many shelters are crowded and underfunded, leaving a growing number of vulnerable people even more at risk, and they need our support.
What is homelessness?
First thing’s first…let’s start with some definitions and statistics.
How is homelessness defined?
Someone who does not have reliable shelter is considered homeless.
This could mean that they currently do not have a place to stay, will be evicted within 2 weeks, or are trying to leave a life-threatening situation such as domestic abuse. They may be living on the streets or an abandoned building, or in many cases, they could be doubled up (living with someone else temporarily), in transitional housing, staying at a shelter, or living out of a vehicle.
We were on a downward trend over the past decade, but in the past 3 years there has been a national-level uptick in homelessness.
Who does homelessness affect?
In 2019, 40% of Americans were one missed paycheck away from not being able to make ends meet, and ⅓ of people didn’t have basic savings accounts. Considering that we’re currently in the middle of an economic crisis with record-breaking unemployment, homelessness is feeling like a very real possibility for a lot of people.
But as it stands today, over half a million (567,000+ as of January 2020) people are homeless on any given day in America. Which is literally more than the entire population of Wyoming. That’s A LOT of people.
Of people experiencing homelessness:
1 in 3 are families with children
Nearly 2 in 3 are adult individuals
About 6% are unaccompanied youth
17% are disabled
7% are veterans
Non-white people are much more likely to experience homelessness. The rate of homelessness of Pacific Islanders is 15x higher than for white folks, even though Pacific Islanders make up a fraction of the total US population compared to whites. For Native Americans and Black Americans, the rates of homelessness are 6x and 5x higher (respectively) compared to whites.
Additionally, men are more likely than women to be homeless (60% of the homeless population), and people who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to experience homelessness at some point in their life compared to straight folks. Somewhere between 25-50% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+.
What causes homelessness?
Most people think very stereotypically about people who are experiencing homelessness. When you think of the homeless, what adjectives come to mind? They probably weren’t very kind, or true. Those are the biases we have to work against, and understanding all of the causes of homelessness can help.
The rising price of housing contributes to homelessness
A recent analysis showed that there is not a single state where someone working a 40-hour work week at a minimum wage job can afford a one-bedroom rental.
In fact, the minimum housing wage is $22.10–which means that you would need to make $22.10 and work 40-hour weeks, every single week of the year, to afford a rental home at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair-market rent without spending more than 30% of your income on rent (which is the recommended share). The national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. For people to afford half the cost of a 2-bedroom apartment in most states, they would need to work 1.5 minimum wage jobs at 40 hours per week.
However, most minimum wage jobs don’t let people work 40 hours per week because then they would be eligible for benefits like healthcare, which employers don’t want to pay for. So most people working minimum wage jobs need to work 2 jobs just to afford their share of rent, if they live with someone who is able to contribute.
This, coupled with a lack of affordable housing is a major driver of homelessness. As areas become gentrified or the price of housing increases in a state or city, the homeless population increases. Rent prices across the country have increased by about 3% each year since 2001, while incomes have decreased by about .1% annually in that same timeframe.
A bad economy drives homelessness
While a lack of affordable housing is the main driver of homelessness, a struggling economy and lack of access to essential health services also leads to less housing security. COVID has wrecked our economy and put many people out of work, or on reduced hours for reduced pay. Some people may be unable to work without assistance due to physical or mental barriers. A lack of access to essential services and a struggling job market puts their livelihoods at risk.
How can I help people experiencing homelessness?
There are immediate ways you can help people, and some more long term ones.
How to help homeless individuals
First and most importantly, come from a place of empathy and compassion, not judgement. Ask their name, chat with them, make sure they know where local shelters are and have bus fare to get there if needed.
- Keep Clif bars and extra water bottles in your car (or something nutritious and delicious but easy to chew).
- Print lists of local shelters with addresses and phone numbers. You can also include contact information for local businesses that hire people transitioning out of homelessness.
Volunteer to help the homeless
POINT has plenty of opportunities for you to get involved volunteering at or donating to an organization that serves the homeless community. If we’re not in your city yet, sign up for our waitlist and we will let you know when POINT is in your city.
To help serve the homeless population or those at-risk, you can volunteer at homeless shelters, women’s shelters, food pantries, LGBTQ+ youth services organizations, and community mental health nonprofits. Remember — treat people like people and show everyone dignity, compassion, and respect. Don’t feel like you need to relate or compare an experience you had to theirs, just listen without judgement.
Donate supplies and money to homeless shelters
Financial donations (especially recurring ones, even if it’s only $10/month) help keep the lights on, literally, at nonprofits. Organizations that serve our low-income communities can always use donations.
If you want to donate physical goods, cleaning supplies, masks, and hand sanitizer are key right now for homeless shelters. But personal care items (toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, chapstick, first aid items like Neosporin and band-aids) and undergarments (underwear and socks, must be packaged and new) are always needed. Check with your local homeless shelter or services organization to see if they have any specific needs at the moment.
Policies to support to end homelessness
While many factors contribute to homelessness, there are some key things to support as a voter. Support politicians who address these things on a national level, but especially on a local/state-wide level:
- Raise the minimum wage; $7.25/hour is simply not enough to afford housing or Enact rent control/affordable housing legislation
- Ensure housing for every homeless individual through permanent supportive housing
- Expand funding for community services like job support, career training, and mental/physical health programs
You can also send a letter to Congress here.
Nonprofits do incredibly important work when it comes to serving our friends and neighbors who are experiencing homelessness, but they would have a lot less people to serve if our society as a whole made sure that everyone has basic necessities like safe shelter.
Making real change requires both a system-down (voting) and a community-up (individual actions + volunteering) approach.
Thank you for doing the work to understand the issues we are working to solve! Remember, we are all a whole lot closer to being homeless than to being millionaires. Get out and get involved in your community, but remember to do it from a place of empathy and compassion.