It’s estimated that 3.5 Million Americans experience homelessness for some duration of time every year.
As a result, there are thousands of programs dedicated to ‘ending homelessness’, and billions of dollars spent every year by government agencies, faith communities and private non-profits, all in the hopes of putting homelessness to bed. But sadly, most of these programs are ineffective and homelessness doesn’t seem to be going away.
So Why Tiny Homes?
Was it a lack of tiny homes that caused our current homeless epidemic?
Are Tiny Homes the solution?
In short, no. Tiny Homes are not THE answer. Tiny Homes are only one approach to address homeless issues, and they are not the answer for everyone. But they are a solution that works for some. And for those who Tiny Homes are able to help, they provide life-saving shelter in a cost effective way, often with more dignity and choices than a traditional emergency shelter model.
What We Do Know:
Study after study has shown that it is cheaper to house people and then offer them supportive services, than it is to leave people on the streets and continue to let the public pay the bill for emergency shelter services and endless trips to the hospital and jail caused by a hard life on the streets.
We also know that there is not enough truly affordable housing available to people, nor are there adequate services to support people who lack adequate housing.
We know that there is a broken system, because we experience it every day.
The Official Homeless Conversation:
Official conversations around Homeless Policy are often framed as if homeless people themselves are “the problem” in need of fixing. They are the ones who made bad choices, and thus, they are the ones in need of treatment and caseworkers- hence, the majority of homeless programs are focused on ‘behavioral and mental’ health and job training programs.
Today’s homeless policies are designed to help individuals fit into a broken system. Hardly are homeless policies designed to bring about change so that the system actually fits the needs of the people using it.
It is important to note that these programs which government leaders claim homeless people need so badly, are hardly ever funded by the government itself. The majority of emergency services available to homeless people are dependent on private funding – from Rescue Missions dependent on faith communities, to non-profit service provider organizations that rely on private sector funding. Consequently, due to the lack of public investment, most of these services are extremely underfunded and inadequate.
The Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative (MDHI) counted 5,812 individuals experiencing homelessness in Denver during their annual “Point In Time” survey in 2014. MDHI recognizes this to be an under-count due to multiple factors. For one, the survey’s findings are dependent on how many volunteers MDHI is able to get on a given day, and how many people those limited volunteers are able to find within one given day. (As if they knew where every homeless person hung out.) And further, they are confined to using the definition of homelessness offered by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – which excludes the majority of homeless people. (Under said definition, an entire family staying on the basement floor of someone else’s house temporarily is not considered homeless.) Regardless, this count sheds light on the deficiency of Denver’s Emergency Services.
For the 5,812 individuals counted, there are only roughly 1,000 shelter beds available to them. That means, officially, there are nearly 6 times as many homeless people in Denver as there are beds available.
In 2012, Denver’s Road Home paid for an assessment to be done of Denver’s Shelter System by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Among it’s findings, the assessment stated;
“The shelter system in Denver has less public investment and less overall investment than in many other communities, resulting in lower quality than in some other cities… For example, Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing invests $28 million annually in its emergency shelter system, compared to approximately $2 million invested by the City and County of Denver.”
Ultimately the report recommends a change of focus: Denver should focus on rapid rehousing, not temporary emergency services.
Today, Denver’s Road Home is pushing their new plan for a ‘Solutions Center’ – a 24 hour shelter focusing on behavioral and mental health services. In order to be accepted into the shelter, however, a person needs to be referred to the center by a police officer or other referring agency.
As one citizen commented at the city council’s public hearing over public funds being allocated for this project –
“We’re glad to see that the city is finally putting some money behind the services they are asking for. However, calling this a ‘Solutions Center’ is offensive because it leads people to believe that what homeless people in Denver in need is more cops and case workers, instead of housing and decent wages.”
Historically, our nation has not always had a homeless epidemic like we do today.
During the Great Depression, there were over 1.5 million Americans experiencing homelessness. But this was viewed as a societal issue, a structural problem – not as if 1.5 million people all made bad decisions and needed treatment to cure their “homelessness”.
So, in 1937, the New Deal was proposed, along with well-funded Housing Programs.
And, surprise, surprise, somehow it worked (Mostly). While the housing programs didn’t help everyone (example: there was still state sanctioned racist policies that meant many people of color weren’t eligible for housing programs) – the New Deal did exemplify how a federal program can effectively address poverty with systemic response. By 1940 – only 3 years later – the official count of homeless individuals went from 1.5 Million to less than 100,000. (This is certainly an under count, but very telling of the programs effectiveness).
And as the national population grew over the next 40 years, the Federal Housing Budget remained well funded, and consequently, the general homeless population remained at all time low – 100,000 people.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, however, there was a change afoot in Washington. Political leaders decided it was time to divest from America’s social safety net and housing programs across the country lost the majority of their funding. Between 1978 and 1983, HUD’s low-income housing budget was slashed 78% from $83 Billion to a mere $13 billion (in 2004 constant USD).
The consequences of those actions have been felt ever since. Between 1980 and 1989, homelessness would triple in size – only to double in size again throughout the 1990’s. And in response, more emergency shelters and soup kitchens opened during the 80’s than any other decade.
Meanwhile, Building Codes, which were developed primarily by construction companies (meaning the people who make money off of bigger buildings) became more elaborate and stringent each year, meaning that new construction meant bigger homes and the demolishing of older smaller dwelling units – including Single Room Occupancy Hotels (SRO’s).
What this meant was that for the first time in US history, hundreds of thousands of Americans found themselves not only homeless (as in not having a stable place to live) but also unsheltered in the 1980’s. Remember that in the days of the Great Depression, many people could still find a cheap hotel or simply build their own structure.
Today, the Federal Low Income Housing Budget is still roughly 1/2 of what it was in 1978 – $45 Billion (compared to $83 Billion) – and homelessness has exploded. There are at least 3.5 Million Americans experiencing homelessness each year, and over 1.1 Million of those are children.
But rather than fix the low-income housing budget, and rather than make it more affordable to build low income housing – cities have decided to take on the new stance of “We refuse to pay for poor people to be housed. We would rather pay to keep them in jail.”
The Criminalization of Homelessness in American Cities
In November of 2014, The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) went to Geneva, Switzerland to present to the United Nations’s Committee Against Torture the findings from their newest report:
No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities”.
Denver Homeless Out Loud’s “The Denver Camping Ban: A Report From The Street” was included in the Law Center’s presentation as a shadow report.
Laws that segregate, make criminals of people based on their status rather than their behavior, or prohibit certain people’s right to be in public spaces are not just sad relics from the past.
Today, numerous laws infringe on poor people’s ability to exist in public space or obtain basic needs such as housing, employment, and equal protection under the law.
Our Homeless Bill of Rights (HBR) Campaign stands on the shoulders of social justice campaigns of the past to alleviate poverty and homelessness while protecting homeless and poor people from unjust laws and ensuring all people’s right to exist in public spaces.