In 2014, 15% of the 600,000 people homeless at any given time were considered chronically homeless; that is, someone who has spent over a year homeless or has had four episodes of homelessness within the past three years and has a disability. That means the majority of people who spend time in shelters or living on the streets are there for a short time – the situationally homeless.
These people are living on the edge of survival and it only takes a little nudge – a job lost, medical bills, car breaking down – to put somebody into the danger zone. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty estimates that between 2.5 and 3.5 million people will be homeless within a single year. One percent of America. Celebrities like Miranda Lambert and Jennifer Lopez have opened up about their time without shelter in order to shed some light on the issue.
And the issue is that people living on the streets aren’t just junkies and drunks; it’s families. It’s kids from abusive homes. It’s blue collar folks who got a pink slip while their job went overseas. Like a lot of poverty issues, homelessness isn’t a matter of personal failing; it’s a matter of Americans running a tightrope act on a razor-thin wire. And there’s no net to catch them.
One of the big reasons that this happens is the cost of housing itself. This fun little map shows how much per hour a person would have to make in order to afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rates. There’s no state in the country that you can work 40 hours a week at minimum wage and not have it take more than a third (the amount that the study’s authors consider a reasonable percentage) of your income. Families are either working more or spending a greater percentage of their income (or cramming into a one bedroom). Or both. That’s a lot of time gone to live paycheck to paycheck.
With employment becoming more unstable as nearly everything becomes part of the gig economy, more people will soon get to live on this margin. We’ll be underbidding each other on who gets to assemble Ikea furniture so we make rent. Because if we don’t, we’re looking for space in a shelter. Minimum wage hikes are fought against tooth and nail because economists can’t seem to agree on whether they’ll help or hurt. But ask anyone trying to make rent on a minimum wage job. You can’t have just one.
Situational homelessness is a hard problem to tackle, maybe even harder to solve than chronic homelessness. With the chronically homeless, states like Utah have found success in simply giving them homes. But if you slip into brief homelessness whenever crisis hits, what’s the solution? You can’t give everyone homes; many families would be too proud to accept it. But making sure that someone who works gets paid enough to stay off the streets would be a start.