IIn America - and the UK - Homelessness Is Becoming a Humanitarian Crisis

The homelessness epidemic faced in developed countries has been described as a humanitarian crisis unfolding in our streets. There’s a direct correlation between the rising cost of living in cities and the severity of homelessness.

This crisis has reached a point where it’s drawn comparisons to poverty in developing nations, as homelessness jumps to record-breaking levels in the U.S. and further afield. If we look at Los Angeles alone, municipal leaders have revealed that their surveys counted over 55,000 homeless people in the area — a 25 percent increase from last year.

California and Washington state homelessness numbers have also been rising, and Hawaii is up by over 30 percent since 2007. Alameda County’s figures increased by 40 percent over 2015, and Seattle and San Diego’s numbers are also much higher.

In King County, Washington state, homelessness is among the worst in the U.S. There are, on average 12,000 people living in one of the six encampments, in 400 unofficial encampments, in shelters, on the streets, or in cars.

Given the wealth of a city like Seattle, how is it that homelessness has reached this level?

there is such a huge disconnect and lack of coordination between NGOs, government authorities, and local authorities

King County spends over $1.06 billion every year on homelessness whether that’s addressing it or responding to it. Calculated by examining budgets of nonprofits, local authorities and cities, the amount expended by police and emergency services, hospital and drug treatments, and the funds used for temporary and permanent housing, this $1.06 billion clearly shows that homelessness is not a resource problem.

The problem is, in fact, communication. In King County, there is such a huge disconnect and lack of coordination between NGOs, government authorities, and local authorities that dollars are hemorrhaged and homelessness is not helped. Integrating all these parts and making the system more efficient would not only save millions of dollars, but it would also save lives.

In King County alone, there were 91 fatalities in the homeless community last year, some of which were caused by the ever-worsening opioid problem in the area. It is almost fourfold more expensive to treat a homeless person than a non-homeless person given the fact that they are frequently ill, suffer mental health issues or substance abuse problems, and are more vulnerable to violent crime.

Unfortunately, while it would cost $192 million annually to house and look after all the people in need in King County, the cost of development of one apartment in Seattle is $300,000, making 12,000 units $3.6 billion.

The cost of living in cities is indeed on the rise, with home prices and rents returning to and even exceeding pre-2008 recession levels. A one-bedroom apartment in King County has climbed by 53 percent to $1,580 rent per month, and the average two-bedroom apartment in New York City is $3,411 per month.

Once adjusted for inflation, U.S. citizens only make about 10 percent more than what they made in 1973. This is partly because of the 83 percent increase in the price of a home, but more so because of the rising cost of health care, which has increased by eight times.

Taking into consideration both housing and non-housing costs like groceries, transportation, health care, and the consumer price index, areas such as Seattle, Denver, and Portland have experienced some of the most extreme increases in living costs.

Reasons for the rising costs of living can be attributed to things like automation, globalization, and an unchanging minimum wage. Pay has simply not caught up with pricier living expenses like doctor visits and rent.

In the U.K., 2018 is looking equally bleak as the financial pressure mounts, hitting low-income families and individuals especially hard. For 2017, price rises overtook wages due to 13.9 percent increases in travel, a 6.4 percent hike in energy bills, and a 4.3 percent rise in food. Low-income households experience this more due to the “poverty premium” — issues with debt and benefit freezes.

The “get a job” mentality just isn’t applicable anymore

There is also a strong link between mental health and homelessness, and places like Washington State are ranked at 47th in the country for access to mental health care. There simply are not enough places for homeless individuals to seek help if they suffer from mental illnesses.

What also contributes to the recurring situation of homelessness of some people is that those who do have mental illness problems are simply not going to thrive in crowded dorm or shelter settings. Part of handling a mental illness means security and managing self-medication, such as substance abuse.

Jeff Lilley, president of the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle, says that the real problem is addiction combined with mental health issues, and that simply building more homes will not solve things.

Luckily, places like King County are taking a serious look at how homelessness has been approached, and the choice has been made to implement the Pathways Home plan. The Pathways plan is person-centered and a long-term approach as opposed to emergency and short-term interventions. Services are expected to be more efficient and integrated in the future, with Seattle already noticing a difference: The average length of stay at emergency shelters has decreased from 55 to 32 days.

Whether the answer is specialized housing programs, mental health counseling, or help with drug and alcohol addiction, one thing is clear: homelessness is a humanitarian crisis, and needs to be treated as such. The “get a job” mentality just isn’t applicable anymore (if it ever even was). Each one of us has the power to get involved and try to help implement real change, not only in our own communities, but also in countries beyond.



More about the author

About the author

Born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Kate Harveston is a recent college graduate and an aspiring journalist. She enjoys writing about social change and human rights issues, but she has written on a wide variety of other topics as well.

She blogs on social and cultural issues at  Only Slightly Biased.

Follow Kate on Twitter.

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