As many as 3.5 million Americans are homeless each year. Of these, more than 1 million are children and on any given night, more than 300,000 children are homeless.
While the general impression is that the homeless are primarily the chronic and episodic, those unfortunate individuals often seen living on the streets in the downtown areas of our cities, the fact is that more than half the homeless are families with children. The vast majority of these have been thrust into homelessness by a life altering event or series of events that were unexpected and unplanned for. Contrary to the belief that homelessness is primarily the result of major traumatic events or physical and mental disabilities, there are many top causes of homelessness in America.
Homelessness is, in fact, caused by tragic life occurrences like the loss of loved ones, job loss, domestic violence, divorce and family disputes. Other impairments such as depression, untreated mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, and physical disabilities are also responsible for a large portion of the homeless. Many factors push people into living on the street. Acknowledging these can help facilitate the end of homelessness in America.
For those living in poverty or close to the poverty line, an “everyday” life issue that may be manageable for individuals with a higher income can be the final factor in placing them on the street. A broken down vehicle, a lack of vehicle insurance, or even unpaid tickets might be just enough to render someone homeless.
Divorce costs and the associated lowering of a family’s total income can cause one or more family members to become homeless. For families that can hardly pay their bills, a serious illness or disabling accident may deplete their funds and push them out onto the street. Today, the rapid, unexpected loss of jobs and resultant foreclosures has caused great dislocation among families and has dramatically added to the number of people without a roof over their heads.
Natural disasters often cause current housing situations to become untenable and costly repairs are often simply not possible. The results of Hurricane Katrina stand in bleak testimony to the power of nature to displace people.
The great challenge for the newly homeless is to figure out how to return to their normal lives. Organizations that build emergency shelters and transitional housing typically work with a larger number of service providers around the country whose mission is to provide the services, such as job training, social skills training, and financial training, that enable these people to regain employment and return to mainstream lives. The progression for these recently homeless is to first be housed in transitional residences where they can learn these skills, to graduate to assisted living in affordable housing while they build up economic reserves and rebuild their employment resume, and then to graduate to full, market rate housing.
Many of these service provider partners are household names, such as Volunteers of America, Rescue Missions, and the Salvation Army. Many others are local organizations formed to address specific homelessness issues in the community. By carefully vetting the qualifications and financial stability of these service providers, organizations that build emergency shelters and transitional housing are able to assure that their facilities are effectively utilized in the fight to end homelessness.