Over half a million people in the United States are homeless; living on the streets, in cars, in shelters, on the couches or floors of friends or family, or in limited transitional housing. A quarter of these are children. Fifteen percent are “chronically homeless”; chronic homelessness is defined as “an individual who has a disability and has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or a person who has a disability and has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years for at least twelve months”. Families with at least one adult member who meets those criteria are also considered chronically homeless.
Making up the homeless population are those experiencing mental illness, substance abuse, physical disabilities, and domestic abuse, as well as war veterans. Among homeless families, the leading causes are lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, and low-paying jobs.
These statistics are horrifying. Every day people, families with children, disabled and mentally challenged individuals, and veterans line up outside homeless shelters or “soup kitchens”. In the dog days of summer and the freezing days of winter those lines are even longer with many being turned away due to lack of space. Even if space is available there are limits to the hours the homeless can stay inside, usually entering the facility around six or seven in the evening and leaving by about seven the following morning. There are some places where women with children can stay while waiting for more long term transitional housing. There are rules involved with many of these locations. Residents must attend religious services, they are required to perform chores, and women with sons over the age of twelve cannot have those boys stay with them.
During the holidays when families join together in warm and permanent homes to celebrate, the homeless are often isolated. Even when small families are united they are faced with relying on agencies to provide the things those with homes take for granted. As families prepare and share Thanksgiving meals, parents shop for their children’s holiday gifts, and little ones gaze with wonder at store windows filled with toys and making lists for Santa, the homeless may be dealing with feelings of depression or hopelessness.
I grew up in New York City and lived there until I was in my late thirties. Over twenty years ago I would see homeless people sleeping in alleys, on subway gratings, on public benches, and in the doorways of buildings. Some would have cardboard box “homes” while most would simply wear as much clothing as possible while finding spots out of wind, rain, or snow to reduce the chill in the air. I now live in Knoxville, Tennessee and when I drive downtown I see growing masses of homeless living under the bridge of an interstate overpass. This is less than a block from two local shelters. These are the people who could not get inside, for whom there was “no room at the inn”.
Until we begin as a nation to address the causes of homelessness and find intelligent and compassionate solutions we cannot consider ourselves world leaders. When thousands of our citizens rely on churches, temples, mosques, and social service agencies to care for their most basic needs we are obviously missing something. Yes there are many severe problems in the United States; poor education, lack of jobs, hunger, domestic abuse, insufficient mental health care, substance abuse issues, and more. At the core of many of these problems homeless is often the catalyst.
Many children raised in unstable home conditions are negatively impacted by hunger, bullying, poor healthcare, and inconsistent education as they may move from school to school several times in a school year. It’s time to set up transitional housing that works with people before they become homeless. The projects of the sixties and seventies have long outlived their hoped for usefulness. While residents must assume a degree of responsibility in acquiring and maintaining stable homes, programs that encourage independence, home ownership in either houses or apartments, and workshops on DIY maintenance and budgeting would go a long way toward lifting families and individuals out of transient living.
Training people to do basic home repairs, lawn care, gardening especially of vegetables, and managing finances could also lead to either careers or additional opportunities to earn money while assisting others.
I briefly lived in one of the “ghettos” in Knoxville. One of the first things I did was plant a flower garden since I couldn’t stand the bare, institutional appearance of the area. The following spring about a dozen other apartments had small flower gardens blooming on the small lawns in front of apartments. When a local agency offered free vegetable seeds and plants to low income families I applied and was given some. I planted a vegetable garden in the tiny patch of land outside my back door. Soon neighbors were knocking at my door asking if they could take some lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and squash that was growing. I’m sure there were some who simply took what they wanted, but there was no destruction of the garden and judging from the abundance of vegetables most asked to share in the bounty. I was able to move before the following summer so I have no way of knowing if anyone else carried on my tradition of gardening. I like to think that summer I’d made things a little easier for my neighbors; provided fresh vegetables for families who might otherwise have foregone healthy foods.
Perhaps someone in our government will take a look at the real issues facing Americans today. Maybe someone will come up with creative ideas to reduce homeless in this land of plenty. We need to create solutions so there will come a time when the holidays see less homeless on our streets and instead find them in warm and safe homes enjoying the joys of the season along with family and neighbors.