The financial crisis goes beyond Wall Street and Main Street. Americans are literally being pushed out on to the street. This includes "Joey" a nine-year old homeless child. Joey's mother could not afford the rent, following a bout with cancer, mounting medical bills and unemployment. Without a permanent address, Joey's school tried to deny him enrollment.
There are many cases like that of "Joey." These children could suffer potentially life-long harms, including developmental delays, illness, and academic setbacks. This puts them at increased risk for adult homelessness.
The problem is widespread. Massachusetts reports the number of families living in shelters rose by 33% in the past year, and eviction filings rose by 15% in the past quarter alone. In Panama City, Florida, 40% of the rescue mission's clients are homeless for the first time, due to foreclosure, job loss or both. In Los Angeles, at least one shelter reports that half its clients are formerly middle-class people.
Before the financial crisis, between 2.5 and 3.5 million Americans were homeless annually --living in shelters, temporary housing, on the streets or other public places. Now, as the numbers skyrocket, there is little safety net in place to catch them. If current trends continue, estimates suggest 1.5 million more people will become homeless over the next two years.
As I wrote in Mandate for Change, a book of recommendations for President Obama created by the Institute for Policy Studies, homelessness is a growing domestic human rights crisis.
It doesn't have to be. Homelessness can be solved, but it will take an up-front investment and a commitment by the President and Congress. Certain steps can prevent a new wave of suffering and help people off the streets.
We must protect renters caught in foreclosures through no fault of their own. Studies show that 40% of those being evicted due to foreclosure are renters. These renters receive little attention and have few rights. In most states, even if renters regularly pay rent, after a foreclosure, they can be summarily evicted, often with little or no notice. This system puts renters at risk of homelessness. At a minimum, renters should have 90 days notice. They should be allowed to stay in their homes through the lease term, as long as they pay rent.
Many states have homelessness prevention programs that pay rental or mortgage arrears to prevent homelessness for people facing an unexpected crisis like job loss. The federal Stimulus bill provides $1.5 billion specifically for homelessness prevention programs. While this will help, it will not be enough to close the gap between need and resources that these programs face.
Without a major, long-term government commitment to affordable housing and other safety net programs, homelessness will increase as more people lose their homes and jobs. In cities across the country, waiting lists for housing assistance are years long.
Federal funding for affordable housing has been slashed. Funding 200,000 new housing vouchers each year targeted at people who are homeless or at risk would help address the critical housing shortage. An additional170,000 units of permanent supportive housing that offers services like mental health care and substance abuse treatment would get people off the streets and out of shelters.
Solving homelessness is in everyone's interest. Not solving homelessness costs more than ending it with housing and supportive services. Homeless people are more frequently ill, but with little access to health insurance; minor illnesses become serious and expensive emergency room care becomes routine treatment. People living in public places increase managment costs for cities. And children like Joey risk becoming homeless adults, perpetuating the vicious cycle.
Investing in ending homelessness by building the safety net would create jobs, strengthen communities and save money--shoring up the interests of Wall Street.
It's time to end homelessness and ensure the basic human right to housing for all Americans.