The primary cause of individual and family homelessness is the lack of housing. However, other conditions exist that are barriers to permanent housing:
Lack of affordable housing: The growth in the housing market is adversely affecting families living on limited or fixed incomes. Low-income renters are increasingly facing evictions or extreme rent increases. The repeal of rent stabilization legislation in Massachusetts has lead to unchecked rent increases for Boston residents creating a financial burden for current tenants and causing some to lose their homes. In addition, gentrification in urban cities has created a phenomenon of rental unit conversions to ownership condominium units, forcing many long-time tenants out of their homes.
Non-living wages: Boston’s housing prices are among the highest in the nation, yet wages have not gone up at the pace of rents and housing prices. A working adult earning a $10/hour wage would have to work two full-time jobs to afford Boston market rents. In addition, families receiving public assistance, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) receive a fixed amount of a few hundred dollars a month for basic needs, such as housing, food, and healthcare.
Domestic violence: When a victim of domestic violence decides to leave her abuser, she is usually making the choice between her safety (and her children’s safety) and housing and financial stability. Massachusetts allows domestic violence survivors to reside in a domestic violence shelter for a maximum of 90 days. Too often, the survivor – who, more often than not, has been isolated from friends and family – is often faced by a choice of returning to the batterer or homelessness.
Substance abuse: Alcohol or drug addiction is a disease that permeates society across social classes. However, individuals living on the edge of poverty, lack the social or financial supports to address the addiction and are at a higher risk of homelessness. Homeless addicts often lack adequate health care, access to addiction treatment, or supportive housing, which is compounded by the stigma of addiction.
Mental illness: Mental illness affects a significant portion of homeless individuals. Depression, anxiety, bipolar personality disorder, and schizophrenia are among the most common. Though not a direct cause of homelessness, poor mentally ill individuals have a lack of access to support services to secure appropriate housing or treatment.
Job or income loss: Job or income loss is another risk factor for families who are “one paycheck away from homelessness.” Although the poor are most at risk of homelessness, middle class families who lose the wage-earner’s income – whether due to job loss, a disability, death, or for other reasons – may not be able to continue monthly housing payments leading to evictions or mortgage defaults from their homes.
What are the solutions?
The solutions to end homelessness require the political will and the resources to address the root causes of homelessness and barriers to permanent housing.
Affordable housing: Affordable housing is a need for homeless individuals and families across the spectrum. Government affordable housing programs, such as Section 8 or public housing, have waiting lists that are several years long. Increasing resources for such programs will help thousands of families overcome homelessness. Affordable housing initiatives should also be targeted to the families with fixed or low income, who are at or below 30% of the Area Median Income (annual income of $24,800 for a family of four).
Homelessness prevention initiatives: Homelessness prevention initiatives, such as rental assistance or support services, provide families the help they need to remain in their homes. Programs such as rental assistance, provide a limited monetary assistance to cover the shortfall in rent payments, at a lower cost to taxpayers than emergency shelters. Non-financial support services for vulnerable tenants provide appropriate interventions to prevent homelessness.
Access to affordable healthcare: including substance abuse treatment and mental health recovery services.
Access to support services: including childcare and employment assistance, designed to assist individuals and families in overcoming barriers to their homelessness.
Reinstating services for immigrants: Immigrants are significant contributors to the economy and are tax payers. Federal and state legislation has targeted immigrants, particularly legally-present immigrants, for cuts to services and programs. Immigrants continue to pay their fair share of taxes but are politically viewed as burdens instead of contributors. These regulations have left many immigrants without access to basic services available to citizens, such as affordable housing and healthcare. Citizenship is a goal for most immigrants and though their status limits them from voting now, they will eventually be voting citizens.