We all know there is a crisis of homelessness in America — indeed, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 3.5 million people will experience homelessness in a given year — but most of us view this problem as an unsolvable social ill, relegated in our minds to social action days and sporadic food drives. But the dramatic rise in homelessness is not the result of an unavoidable turn of events. It is caused by the lack of affordable housing coupled with economic, social or physical vulnerability, and these factors affect women especially. Over the past three decades, a deliberate set of policies have gutted housing development and assistance in the United States. These cuts mean that there are two million homeless individuals at any given point during a year. Who are these people? Women and their children are the fastest growing category of homeless people today.
In the United States, over 30 million households face significant problems with housing: cost, physical inadequacy and overcrowding, according to Habitat for Humanity. Women and their children suffer most. These families lack food, health coverage and transportation. They are one crisis away from homelessness; a medical emergency, change in family structure, domestic violence or job loss can drive these vulnerable households directly into the street.
Many countries, including Scotland, South Africa and France (as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), recognize housing as a right, the legal basis for which was first established by the United Nations in 1948. Nations that recognize this right are then obligated to work to gradually guarantee housing through a mix of government and market forces. But the United States has in fact reduced or curtailed federal housing assistance in every administration since 1980. These cuts, along with the destruction of affordable housing and a rise in rental costs that outpaces inflation, have created a housing crisis that leads growing numbers of women and children over the precipice into homelessness.
Current U.S. “strategy” — temporary shelter, emergency- room stays, jails and foster care — actually costs more than providing safe, long-term affordable housing and preventative services to vulnerable populations like women with families.
Beyond dollars, there’s the unbearable moral cost of allowing people to live on the street. On Yom Kippur we read the words of Isaiah as he channels the fury of God: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself?… Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter… !”
Here are five steps you can take to affirm that every woman and family has shelter and safety.
1. Fight NIMBYism. (NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard.) Support the creation of low-income housing and treatment facilities in your neighborhood.
2. Ask your elected official for increased wage and income supports to keep pace with rising housing costs and more funding for rent supplement programs.
3. Call upon Congress to develop and fully fund a national housing policy that addresses the deficiencies of the housing market to produce sufficient, affordable housing.
4. Acknowledge that temporary shelters are only the first step in ending homelessness. Support the creation of permanent supportive housing.
5. Push your local representatives, your city and your state to pass resolutions recognizing housing as a human right.
Catherine Schneider is a member of the Wexner Heritage Program.