Unsheltered Homelessness – America’s Own Refugee Crisis

October 24, 2022 — Blog

By Amy King, Pallet

The past few months have been an example of only the latest refugee crisis in our country. An estimated 200,000 Latin American refugees are encountered at the southern borders of the United States every month, fleeing life threatening crime or abject poverty. But even at home, the U.S. faces an internal refugee crisis: homelessness.  

Over 500,000 people are currently experiencing homelessness in the U.S., according to recent estimates (believed to be conservative), and this figure is growing every day. 

There are numerous reasons why people become displaced and lack access to stable and consistent housing.. The most commonly known and discussed  cause of homelessness is the ever increasing lack of affordable housing. In addition, much of the low income housing that is provided is not well maintained, built in areas that lack opportunity, and is not built to meet diverse cultural needs.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, homelessness has risen 61% since 2008, caused by foreclosures of people who can no longer afford mortgage payments.

We can trace a direct correlation between housing costs and homelessness. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have the highest housing costs across the country, and consequently the highest rates of homelessness, according to a recent HUD report. But it’s not only limited to large cities, we see this dynamic playing out in cities of all sizes.  In Austin, Texas, for example, the number of those experiencing homelessness has grown by 20% in the last year alone as home values have soared nearly 30%.  And it’s seemingly worse in smaller cities and towns as the pandemic led many people to relocate from more expensive cities like Los Angeles. In the past decade, Boise, Idaho, has seen a 23% increase in homelessness while home prices have skyrocketed over 238% in the same period.

Whether it is marginalized groups or asylum seekers, one of the greatest barriers to finding safe, affordable housing is the lack of information and clarity around where and how to obtain the services and resources needed. America’s limited supply of affordable housing creates untenable competition for rental housing. Those experiencing housing insecurity are likely to be shut out if they don’t have an active address, a secure income, or a domestic rental history. Even with stable employment and meeting all of the requirements of a rental agreement, many landlords will exclude refugees from consideration.

Unfortunately, a significant aspect of the problem is human bias. Not only does discrimination against refugees keep hundreds of thousands unhoused, it also often leads to eviction. If we want to prevent evictions, we can start with policies that incentivize the retention of vulnerable populations in rental scenarios, mindful of the fact that private landlords have different rights than public housing. 

As involuntary migration continues to expand, all governments must consider what role they will play, how they will fund and provide the necessary services in sanctuary communities, and consider the economic, environmental, and social implications of ignoring the problem. 

Governments at all levels from federal to local have the power to solve this crisis. The role of government is to create an environment where people can live, work and thrive peacefully. This can (and should) look like policy, legislation, regulation, and governance that ensures equal access to opportunity and addresses basic human needs, including housing. 

Historically, federal and subnational governments have not recognized housing as a basic human right. We have fundamentally ignored the necessary policies and legislation to ensure equal access and adequate supply. Instead, governments have hyper-focused on regulations such as limiting density, prohibiting multi-family homes in residential neighborhoods, and other restrictions that have slowed housing production and contributed, among many other things, to the national supply shortage. 

Public housing has been a staple of low-income housing policy for decades. But in far too many instances it has not provided viable or humane solutions. It is often under-resourced, very poorly maintained, and located in trap neighborhoods. These communities often perpetuate cycles of poverty through economic segregation. Rather, creating policies and programs that encourage and incentivize creation of mixed income housing supply and affordable housing access throughout all neighborhoods and communities is one key to solving the crisis. 

Policymakers should also consider alternative models for transitional and interim housing, so people have access to safe shelter solutions while they wait for more permanent options to become available. Many cities, such as Los Angeles, are increasingly incorporating such solutions into their emergency response to homelessness, with significant success in rapidly providing shelter to thousands across the country. 

If we can provide stable shelter and services at an asylum seeker’s point of entry, we are more likely to avoid many of the problems that perpetuate homelessness. Interim shelter solutions are needed to ensure peoples’ safety and dignity while they get stabilized and build a sustainable plan for success. People left unhoused are likely to encounter further trauma, which can lead to mental health issues, substance use disorder, and other problematic behavior that leads to further marginalization. 

It must be understood that transitional housing is temporary by nature. Residents, host communities, and all stakeholder groups need to continue working toward a long-term goal. We should NOT substitute transitional housing solutions for permanent housing.  Unfortunately, some misperceive transitional solutions as permanent, trapping people in poverty and poor placement.

In the long term, refugees should be integrated into host communities with a strong support system to assist them with the identification of appropriate permanent housing solutions. 

Regardless of where people come from, communities should work to integrate those seeking permanent shelter as much as possible. This can happen through voluntary community adoption of immigrant families, connection to faith-based groups, and workforce entry programs. Many people find significant belonging through communities built at their place of work. Previously isolated and marginalized individuals should be hosted in groups with peers to cultivate a sense of belonging, which comes from being known, seen, and heard. Give newcomers a place and voice in your community and welcome their culture and contribution as valuable.

Housing is only one piece of the complex puzzle. We must start by funding necessary services and paying social workers and mental health providers more to incentivize a stronger workforce to assist all vulnerable populations. We must then build policies and programs that elevate people out of houselessness by providing a pathway out – not a handout, but a hand up.  That includes workforce development, minimized service dependency, recovery services (not just substance use disorder, but all recovery), and most importantly, connection to healthy and supportive communities. 

Solving this ongoing crisis will take tremendous dedication, perseverance, significantly increased resources, changes in attitudes and approaches, collaboration between the public, private and non-profit sectors, and more.  It might seem audacious. But together, we can accomplish a world where no one goes unsheltered.   

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