Public Comment

We Can Defeat Homelessness

Harry Brill
Sunday January 21, 2018 - 11:07:00 AM

Among the grim statistics is the growing numbers of homeless people, which has climbed to about 600,000. Twenty percent of the homeless reside in California. Among the major causes are unemployment, skyrocketing rents, mortgage foreclosures, and a costly medical crisis. Indeed, if a financial crisis occurs, most families discover that they had been living on the edge. Nearly seven in 10 Americans (69 percent) have less than $1,000 in their savings account. If they are unable to meet their financial obligations, individuals and families risk eviction and losing their homes. 

Ending up homeless is not simply inconvenient and uncomfortable. Adults over 50 who are homeless have mortality rates that are four times higher than the general population. In fact, adults who are at least 50 make up about 50 percent of the homeless. 

Progressive organizations have been urging the federal government at all levels to address the problems of homelessness. With regard to the role of the federal government it is not only that they are doing very little. Over the years they have made matters worse. The government has not only given up on public housing. Also, the number of public housing units, about 10,000, are demolished every year. The reason is that the government has allowed these buildings to deteriorate, which has made them unlivable . Another major housing program, Section 8 housing, which subsidizes the rents tenants pay in the private market, is also being cut back. 

There are also other government housing programs that have been feebly enforced. The "Homeless Assistance Act", mandates that empty or underused property the government owns be made available to homelessness advocacy organizations. But this law has been feebly enforce. The same with the 1994 Base Closure Act, which encourages closed bases to convert the facilities to housing for the homeless. Either the federal government does little or nothing or engages in policies that actually increases homelessness. 

Obviously, the federal government should be pressured to provide low cost housing including the revival of the public housing program. But this approach is problematic because the hurdles are immense. Believe it or not, far more could be accomplished by 

the private sector. There are millions of spare bedrooms in every metropolitan areas across the United States. For every homeless person there are five vacant bedrooms. 

Among the potentially available living quarters are housing units occupied by senior citizens. Many older Americans if approached would be open to sharing their housing space. There are well over 11 million people over the age of 65 living alone. The New York City nonprofit New York Foundation for Senior Citizens has been for the last two decades successfully matching people to share their homes. The organization pairs seniors with either younger or older persons who are seeking housing. The organization's rule is that at least one of the matches must be at least 60 years. Although the Foundation for Senior Citizens is not primarily a program to serve the homeless, it prevents some of its clients from becoming homeless by helping them find affordable housing. An excellent article that discusses the role of the organization is in the January 14th New York Times. For more information, you can also google its name. 

For both objective and subjective reasons, senior citizens living alone could benefit by sharing their spaces. The research on those who live alone show higher mortality rates, a greater vulnerability to becoming ill, and tendency to suffer depression and other psychological problems. As one researcher noted, a social rather than an isolated environment is like food. Without it, the consequences are often detrimental. 

But successfully matching people for home sharing can be extremely difficult. Organizations that are committed to reducing homelessness must develop the resources and capacity that are likely to yield a successful outcome. The social work staff of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens screen and check references of all host and guest applicants. It. should be kept in mind that those who are homeless, just like those who are not, represent a very diverse group and may have different attributes to share with others. Perhaps some enjoy cooking, or feel comfortable escorting who they live with to their medical appointments. Also, their interests may be similar with regard to the music they listen to or they enjoy reading similar books. For some, privacy is paramount. And of course, money matters. About 25 percent of the homeless are working. Losing their homes or apartments does not necessarily mean that their job has been lost as well. Having a paycheck makes it possible to share various costs. 

There is one mistake that is worth avoiding. Undoubtedly, those who have been homeless for a while have been under considerable stress. In some instances, the impact is severe and extremely difficult to overcome. But for the most part those who believe that providing psychological treatment should precede efforts to obtain a roof over the heads of the homeless are mistaken. This perspective reflects a blaming the victim approach. According to the evidence, the best treatment that homeless persons can receive is a place to live. Once having escaped homelessness, they are in a much better position to address their personal problems. 

Clearly, persuading seniors as well as many others who live alone to share their living quarters could provide housing for a tremendous number of homeless and near homeless people. The various communities -- political, professional, religious, small business, neighborhood and community organizations, and of course senior citizen organizations and homeless constituencies - - should develop an alliance to achieve this objective. If the initial efforts are successful it would then become possible to attract state and local funds as well as foundation money to expand the program. If done right housing the homeless is certainly a winnable venture. 

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