An often forgotten aspect of homelessness, that is critical to understanding it, is how desperately people try to avoid losing their housing. Homelessness rarely, if ever, occurs spontaneously in situations where people were financially stable. In those cases where the primary breadwinner loses their job, or a child became ill, or the car broke down, there is a series of things likely to happen before they are evicted from housing.
First, they might try to secure more credit, if they are able, and max out the credit that is available, to pay rent, food, utilities. Once that line is used up, it becomes a game of priorities to see which bill is the most important to pay. Utilities have to be foregone, risking losing your children to child protective services if anyone finds out you are in a home with no water or no heat. After a family or individual is evicted from housing, there are likely a number of past due bills and judgments against them. Finding first month’s rent, last month’s rent and a security deposit to move into a new place can be insurmountable without help.
The other side of this takes us away from the focus on the individual or family and looks at the systems we have around them to help or hinder. All too often, policies on our “safety nets” leave them useless for those most desperately in need. Public housing (i.e. housing projects) can deny potential residents if they have outstanding rent or utility bills or have any criminal history. Utility assistance is only available in the coldest months of the year, and is not enough to help all those who show up the first day it is available in the year. Finding a new job is difficult in good situations, and nearly impossible without means of transportation or child care. A person will not qualify for child care payment assistance until after they have secured a job, and then the processing can take weeks before it takes effect, not something many employers are able or willing to accommodate.
We also know that ending homelessness is an equity issue. In Kent County in 2015, 62% of those who were homeless were African American, only a quarter were White. The overall demographics of Kent County from the US Census Bureau show that only 10.5% of county residents are African American and 83% are White. This shows us that African Americans have been shut out of a critical path to building generational stability and wealth at pretty alarming rates within our community.
All this adds up to say—the homelessness you see is just the tip of the iceberg, both in that person’s life and in the systems that led to it.
Addressing the underlying issues is key to ending homelessness. State and national policies could be enacted to alleviate much of the pipeline into homelessness. But we need public will to demand it. People have to decide that it is better for our community that all people are housed and that all people have a right to a place to live where they can truly live. Quoting Matthew Desmond from his book, Evicted, “America is supposed to be a place where you can better yourself, your family, your community. But this is only possible when you have a stable home.”