Underlying Issues in Our Homelessness Problem

Mar 18, 2015

Could you recognize homelessness if you saw it? You would probably answer “yes” to that question.

But the reality is that homelessness is often hidden from plain sight and can affect anybody. In the first part of an in-depth series, WMRA’s Kara Lofton looks at some of the underlying issues that lead to homelessness.

For the millions of Americans who live paycheck-to-paycheck, rent-to-rent, bill-to-bill, the potential for homelessness is a constant threat. The visible homeless, those one might see sitting in doorways and allies, cup held out or “flying a sign,” are only a small percentage of the vulnerable.

Shannon Porter is the director of Mercy House, a shelter that serves families with dependent children in Harrisonburg.  He says it’s a popular misconception that homelessness is not an issue in central and western Virginia.

PORTER: Society has a lot of constructed ideas about what homelessness should look like. And so you assume it is generally an individual problem and it is something that happens in big cities…homelessness isn’t just necessarily being out on the street, it can be living in a place that is not fit for human inhabitation, it could be couch surfing, where you are essentially never a permanent resident, you’re constantly moving from place, to place, to place, and then unfortunately some people living in cars and places they really shouldn’t be living. So family homelessness is actually a big issue and not only in this area, but across the country, it’s just a lot of people don’t realize it.

Porter said that for the greatest portion of Mercy House clients, the main issue is economic. An event such as an unforeseen medical bill, losing a job or having one’s car break down can impel the events that result in ending up on the street.

PORTER: Certainly a lot of folks who come through our programs have life management issues and other problems, whether it be mental illness or substance abuse, but I would say the largest percentage of our clients do not have those issues. They have economic issues, things that they are struggling to keep up with.

In a very simplistic sense, economic problems can be boiled down to two factors: nation-wide lack of a livable minimum wage, and the lack of affordable housing.  These are two factors that will be addressed more in depth later in this series.

For now, it is worth circling back to another dynamic Porter mentioned: the role that life management issues, including undiagnosed or mismanaged disability, play in economic instability and homelessness.

In the late 1970s, the Carter administration began sweeping changes to public policy that included the transfer of mentally ill patients from hospitals into the community. The rationale was that these patients could be better served in the private sector. However, instead of reallocating funds to community-based initiatives that could support the transition, federal funding was simply cut. The result was that many of these uninsured patients, who could not afford private services, ended up on the street.

According to a 1998 article in the Journal of Sociology by current SUNY Oneonta professor Alexander Thomas, the reasoning behind this shift was pure economics.

Thomas wrote that, quote, “The shifts in such policies were not the result of overt attempts at change, but rather part of an overall effort to realign the political economy to be more profitable for business.”

As a result, he said, “hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people concentrated in the inner cities.” With the rise of gentrification (which reduced the availability of affordable housing) and the absence of health insurance that would pay for private mental health services, many of these patients ended up homeless.

Things are beginning to change, though. Stephen Hitchcock is the director of The Haven, a day shelter in Charlottesville.

HITCHCOCK: When you are talking about more chronic individuals, so folks with perhaps significant substance use issues or severe mental health issues, the way that now high functioning systems of care are addressing those folks, there are a number of ways actually, but the main way though is through permanent support of housing. And permanent support of housing is housing for folks without program requirements so it’s not saying, ‘you do this and we’ll give you this,’ it is, ‘this is for you no matter your condition.’

Hitchcock said that housing support is not only necessary and beneficial for individuals struggling with disabilities, but is part of growing initiatives that are sweeping the nation: preventing homelessness in the first place and when it does happen, helping folks get back in homes as soon as possible.