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The Origin of Mass Homelessness

On a given night in the United States over half a million people live in homelessness. It is estimated that there are over 850 people living without housing in Durham County and Orange County alone.  Mass homelessness is a reality of modern America.

 

Today 11 million extremely low-income households designate at least half of their income toward housing, putting them at risk of housing instability and homelessness.

Increasing the availability and affordability of low-income housing would go a long way in the battle against mass homelessness.  The state of Utah, in fact, has reduced chronic homelessness (people living on the street for over a year) by 91%. By studying examples like Utah, we can deduce that homelessness is here but we have the power to end it.

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

– Maya Angelou

 Homelessness is, at its root, a housing crisis.  In the 1970s, affordable housing was plentiful and homelessness fairly rare.  But by the mid-1980s, rents had risen while wages remained stagnant, forcing low-income families and individuals to dedicate more of their income to housing. This housing crisis occurred simultaneously with reform to our entitlement system. Cuts to veteran's funding, mental health deinstitutionalization, and poverty assistance programs induced a swell in the number of individuals at great risk of becoming homeless. It is evident that the elimination of the social safety net and economic forces combined to create the crisis of mass homelessness as we know it today.

As homelessness developed so too did our response. Our first effort was to focus on providing shelter in the form of mass congregate shelters to keep people from spending the night on the streets. While this work was important, it did not prioritize providing permanent housing and currently does not provide a plausible path to ending homelessness. With more research, we have arrived at more effective strategies that together are called the housing first system.