The report links these increases to recession-related economic factors that have left poor and low-income people at-risk. It reveals that more than 6 million low-income people now live “doubled up” with friends and relatives in order to save money on housing (living “doubled up” is often a precursor to homelessness for very low-income households). It shows that nearly three-quarters of households with incomes below the federal poverty line spend over half of their monthly incomes on rent, leaving them vulnerable to homelessness. And it notes that the number of unemployed people increased by 5.4 million (60 percent) and poor workers saw their average wages shrink by two percent (a reduction twice that of the average American). Poor households, already living with no safety net or margin for error, are most at-risk of homelessness when incomes decrease or housing costs rise.
In addition to these economic factors, there are special barriers that make other groups particularly vulnerable to homelessness, especially during a recession. Among those most likely to become homeless, are young people leaving foster care. Without a family to help them they are four times as likely as the average poor person to experience homelessness. Also challenged are people being released from incarceration. In the best of times they face high hurdles to finding a job; the problem is exacerbated when unemployment is high and every job opening is hotly contested.
People who become homeless do not typically enter the shelter immediately after they experience job loss, foreclosure, or eviction. They first use all their economic and social resources to stay on their feet. As a result, homelessness usually lags behind the crisis. Although communities have worked hard to try to avoid massive recession-related increases in homelessness, and although the $1.5 billion federal recovery Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program has begun to help, the threat of increased homelessness still looms large. What more can Congress and the Administration do to prevent it?
Ending homelessness is the right goal
Across the country communities have created plans to end homelessness focused on housing solutions, and in 2009 Congress passed the HEARTH Act to support this work. The Administration recently created its own plan to end homelessness. Congress and the Administration should keep squarely focused on implementing these cost-effective plans to end homelessness and fund them to succeed.
Public institutions such as foster care and prison should adequately plan for the exit of those in their care in order to prevent them from becoming homeless. This planning should address housing needs.
Use federal resources strategically
Homeless people need housing. Without it, they are unlikely to hold a job, their children will not do well in school, and their health will deteriorate. Federal policy and resources are key to ending homelessness and every single federal dollar must be strategically focused on solutions.
2011 will be a challenging year. State of Homelessness in America shows that the problem is growing, and we know that resources to address it will be scarce. Nevertheless, the solutions to homelessness are known, are cost-effective, and are within our reach. With adequate and well-targeted federal policy and resources to support local ingenuity and determination, we can ensure that increased homelessness is not another sad legacy of the economic recession.
Nan Roman is president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.