Addressing Homelessness

At the day job I work for a trade association that represents the apartment industry, thus the companies I work with are on the front lines of our nation’s housing situation. You may not be aware of it, but we do indeed have a housing situation that can be best summed up as this: we have too many people who don’t make enough money to pay for the housing that’s available, and/or we don’t have enough housing units that are affordable for people at the bottom of the income scale. Even worse, we have a LOT of people who, thanks to any number of life events, lose their housing and thus end up living in flop houses, cars, tents or under a bridge.

Because apartment owners and managers provide over a third of the housing in the U.S, and a majority of the rental housing, they are often looked to for a solution to the problem of affordability and homelessness. It would be great if they could snap their fingers and solve the problem, but due to the complexity of the issue (static income, increases in the costs of everything from health care to food, lack of housing inventory in general, etc.) this is not something housing providers can solve on their own. That’s not to say that people in the industry aren’t trying, and a perfect example is a woman named Lori Trainer who has been working for years down in Florida to address homelessness in her community. (Here’s a link to a video about some of her work, and I’ll embed it below as well). She just wrote an article for Multifamily Insiders titled The Story Behind the Sign that helps put homelessness in perspective. Here’s an excerpt:

We’ve all seen the homeless person with the sign on the side of the road and when we do, many people think these thoughts.    What the people offering these judgments don’t realize is that the overwhelming majority of people don’t “choose” to be homeless.  In fact, nearly 50% of the homeless in America are working.  Why are they homeless then?  Well, that is the “564,788 person question” (the number of homeless on the street each night according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness).

The causes of homelessness range from sad to tragic.  Job loss, foreclosures, divorce and natural disasters such as the tragedies we are seeing in the Midwest and in Canada are a few examples.  These storm victims certainly didn’t choose to be homeless or do anything wrong but they are indeed homeless now.  If their insurance isn’t perfect, takes a year to work out the details or worse yet, doesn’t pay, what do those families do?  They have lost everything; their homes, belongings and jobs.  They are now homeless…

Another very prevalent and sad demographic in the homeless arena are families.  Approximately 206,268 were identified in the last count. Divorce, domestic violence, death, single parents and low wage workers are all in this category.  Children are resilient but often suffer irreparable damage when forced to live in vehicles, shelters or motels for weeks or months on end.  60 Minutes did a great job highlighting this epidemic:https://youtu.be/L2hzRPLVSm4   (Be sure to have tissues handy!)

Then Lori goes on to point out that there are many, many more people who are just a misstep away from becoming homeless themselves.

Many people think it could never happen to them.  But the truth is that one out of three people are two paychecks away from being homeless.  There are 12 million renters pay more than 50% of their annual income for housing and 37 million people living in poverty in America.  Simple fact, a minimum wage worker cannot support a household and pay rent.  There is a critical shortage of affordable housing in the US and, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition; approximately 200,000 units are destroyed annually.  That combined with the “aging out” tax credit population and the mile long waiting lists for section 8 vouchers, we have the perfect storm.

One of the initiatives we are working on at the national level in the industry is to identify the programs that industry groups are participating in at the local level around the country. For instance, my employer is working with Partners Ending Homelessness to help match their clients with available apartment units in Guilford County. What we’ve found is that like many things in life, the concept is simple but the implementation is complex. Still, we’ve seen progress and we will continue working because this is an issue that will be with us for the foreseeable future.

That’s just one initiative in one community, but that’s the kind of effort we’re going to need in every community around the country to address homelessness, because quite frankly this is not an issue that can be solved from Washington. What our national leadership CAN do is address the big picture issues that underlie homelessness, including:

  • An economy that is not providing adequate income for average workers
  • A health care “system” that bankrupts some, and financially cripples many
  • A crumbling infrastructure that threatens all of us
  • A byzantine regulatory structure (think HUD & EPA) that makes affordable housing development a challenge

Another chief culprit is an under-performing, and some would say under-valued, education system, but that’s not just a Washington issue so let’s not throw it entirely on them. The point is that homelessness is the most severe symptom of an ailing nation. If we are truly measured by how we treat the least of us, then as a nation and a community we have a lot we need to do to heal ourselves.

Here’s the video about the effort in Florida that Lori’s been a big part of:

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