The last time the number of low-income rental units exceeded the number of low-income renters was 1970 (see chart, below). A recent brief by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, "A Home by Any Other Name: Enhancing Shelters Address the Gap in Low-income Housing," reports that by 2009 there were almost 11 million low-income renters for only 5.4 million affordable units. Making matters worse for the poorest families, today, higher-income renters occupied 2.3 million of these units, leaving roughly nine million of America's poorest households priced out of the housing market.
In every corner of the country, low-income working families are increasingly rent-burdened, exhausting or exceeding their already stretched household budgets. A generation ago, roughly two out of every 10 families spent more than 30 percent of their income on rent; today this proportion has doubled to almost four out of every 10 families. And while only 6 percent of families devoted more than half of their income to rent a generation ago, today that number tripled to almost 18 percent. We have now reached the point where today those earning the minimum wage cannot afford to pay the market-rate rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in this country.
So is it any wonder that family homeless has continued to rise as well? The latest national homeless point-in-time count reported that 236,000 individuals in families were homeless on a single night in 2011, while the U.S. Department of Education reported that over one million school-age children were homeless during the school year. These families live in shelters, live doubled up with other households, or live in dangerous places. And while advocates call for government to build more affordable units, over the last 30 years government has done just the opposite, abandoning its commitment to low-income housing, and with shrinking public coffers, we can expect more of the same.
So what is to be done? Well, the answer may surprise you.
Given that the federal government no longer builds low-income housing, and that state and local budgets are stretched beyond their capacity to effectively do so, we must accept the fact that shelters have become America's surrogate for low-income housing. Parents go to work from shelters, school buses pick up children from shelters, broken spirits are mended at shelters, and it is at shelters that new dreams are born.
Shelters should be recognized for what they effectively are, or have the potential to become: new communities of opportunity. If working parents lose their housing because of their inability to maintain work, shelters should be the place they connect with the education and job training to help secure their family's future. For those parents who struggle to overcome the ravages of family violence and addiction, or mental health issues, shelters should be the place where they can safely get the help and support they need. And for those families whose lives have been turned upside down by illness or financial stress, shelters can provide respite and the opportunity to develop a concrete game plan to regain independence. You see, for far too long shelters have been characterized as a sad last stop down the socioeconomic ladder, when they can in effect be a pioneering frontier to opportunity. If shelters are the new low-income housing alternative of today, and likely tomorrow, let's put them to work as residential educational training facilities, and as a tool used to end homeless, not a place to simply wallow in it.
With 16 percent of our population living in poverty and 33 percent considered near poor or poor, many more families will sooner or later call a shelter a home. And, while the plight of low-income families are ignored by headlines and public debates, not so in shelters. Shelters are an opportunity in disguise; a misunderstood opportunity to address the circumstances that led families to their doors.
Today shelters serve as the front line in the fight against poverty. They are often the first place that recognizes and addresses the educational and social needs of parents and their children, and the counseling and medical needs of individuals. Shelters know that without help, low-income homeless families will destabilize, or worse, disintegrate. No amount of affordable housing can ever put a family back together again. But shelters turned residential educational communities of opportunity can help keep families together and prepare them to permanently compete in the competitive housing market of today and tomorrow. Shelters are not a sad rung down the ladder of homelessness and poverty, but the hopeful rung to stepping up and out of it.