What Is The Cause Of Homelessness In America – Homelessness by the numbers Causes of homelessness Solutions to homelessness Our community’s supportive housing system How you can help
Destination: Homelessness by the Numbers Causes of Homelessness Solutions to Homelessness Our Community Supportive Housing System How You Can Help
- 1 What Is The Cause Of Homelessness In America
- 1.1 Federal Analysis Shows Oregon’s Homeless Population In Decline Prior To Pandemic
- 2 Prince William Turns 40, Takes Up Cause Of Homelessness
What Is The Cause Of Homelessness In America
Despite stereotypes that oversimplify the nature of homelessness, the real causes of homelessness are complex and nuanced. Rather than stemming from a single cause, homelessness is typically the result of several compounded and interrelated factors that vary from person to person. And a deeper examination will reveal that the root causes of homelessness lie in entrenched, long-standing social inequalities.
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In surveys conducted during the biannual Point-in-Time Count, homeless people report a wide range of different “primary causes” for their homelessness—none of which came close to representing the majority of individuals:
While the PIT survey specifically asks respondents to report a “primary cause,” it’s also worth noting that many homeless people generally attribute their homelessness to a combination of interrelated or compounding factors.
While the data do not point to a predominant cause, most commonly reported factors relate to economic problems or changes in household dynamics. Dispelling the myth that alcohol and drug use are the main drivers of homelessness, we see a significantly higher percentage of people citing a job loss as the primary cause of their homelessness.
These varied responses also reflect that homeless individuals generally report multiple, compounding factors—rather than a single cause—that ultimately pushed them into homelessness.
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“Homelessness is a societal fault, not an individual one. It is important to distinguish between root causes and individual factors, these issues intersect but are not the root causes.
Homelessness is often seen as the result of a personal or moral failing, but the individual factors that contribute to homelessness are rooted in structural problems that plague our society. Here in Santa Clara County, we can point to some important systemic forces that push more of our neighbors into homelessness every day:
For decades, Santa Clara County (and the greater Bay Area) has not produced enough housing to match the needs of our growing population. This constrained supply has led to skyrocketing rents that have made most housing units simply unaffordable for a large segment of residents.
To make matters worse, our community continually falls short of our development goals for subsidized low-income housing – especially when it comes to units dedicated to extremely low-income residents (our lowest-income residents earn less than 30% of the area’s median income—or about $53,500 for a family of four in Santa Clara County).
Federal Analysis Shows Oregon’s Homeless Population In Decline Prior To Pandemic
As a result, we have a severe shortage of affordable and available housing in our community – with the National Low-Income Housing Coalition estimating that there are only 30 affordable and available rental units for every 100 extremely low-income households in our community.
With so few affordable housing options available, the vast majority of our lowest-income families and individuals are severely rent-burdened (meaning they spend more than 50% of their income on rent and utilities) and often just one crisis away from homelessness.
There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating a strong correlation between high housing costs and high levels of homelessness in a community.
The data shows that communities where people spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent can expect a faster increase in homelessness.
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In their book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem”, researchers and authors Clayton Page Aldern and Gregg Colburn correlate rent levels and vacancy rates to regional rates of homelessness, proving that homelessness is rooted in a housing problem and more specifically – a lack of affordable housing for the lowest income households.
Many other common explanations – drug use, mental illness, poverty or local political context – fail to account for regional variation.
“To explain the interplay between structural and individual causes of homelessness, some who study this topic use the analogy of children playing musical chairs. As the game begins, the first child who is not given a chair has a sprained ankles. The next few kids are too anxious to play the game effectively. The next few are smaller than the big kids. At the end, a fast, tall, confident kid sits in the last available seat and grins. You can tell that disability or lack of physical strength has caused individual children to be wheelchair-bound. But in this scenario, wheelchair-lessness itself is an inevitability: the only reason anyone is wheelchair-less is because there are not enough of them .
In recent decades, our region has become a global economic engine that has created enormous wealth for those with high-paying jobs in tech and other major industries. However, our lowest-income workers—including those in the service industry or those who rely on minimum-wage jobs—have not reaped the same benefits. In fact, Santa Clara County workers on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder have seen wages drop over the past two decades.
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Bay Area Equity Atlas, “Earned Income Growth for Full-Time Wage and Salaried Workers: Santa Clara County, CA, 2000–2019.” https://bayareaequityatlas.org/indicators/income-growth#/?geo=04000000000006085
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the richest 10% of families in the Bay Area now have more than 12 times the income of the 10% of families with the lowest income in the region.
As a result, it is now virtually impossible for our lowest-income workers to keep up with the rising cost of living – and especially exorbitant housing costs – driven by the region’s high wages. A resident of Santa Clara County must earn $58.06/hour to afford the average priced apartment on the market.
In recent decades, politicians have failed to maintain a strong safety net to support our most vulnerable residents. We have seen continued underinvestment, as well as direct spending cuts, to programs critical to helping our most vulnerable residents maintain stable housing (ie, low income housing subsidies, disability benefits, financial assistance programs).
Prince William Turns 40, Takes Up Cause Of Homelessness
In the worst example, a lack of investment in federal housing initiatives has resulted in only one in four low-income, at-risk tenants receiving federal rental assistance:
This lack of investment in our most vulnerable families is even more unfortunate because resources are often diverted to programs that benefit higher-income individuals. For example, the money spent on the mortgage tax deduction and the capital gains exemption for homeowners exceeds the federal housing subsidies available to low-income renters.
As a result, our most vulnerable residents are left without the resources and support to maintain stable housing and avoid homelessness.
For communities of color, structural racism accelerates these inequalities. Our history of systemic racism—and the ways it has prevented people of color from having access to housing, community resources, opportunities for economic mobility and more—continues to play a major role in our homelessness crisis.
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For example, decades of discrimination in the housing market have prevented people of color, especially African Americans, from achieving homeownership and building personal wealth. This created a huge racial wealth gap that has persisted over several generations. In fact, the average white household has six times more wealth than the average African American household.
Bhutta, Neil, Andrew C. Chang, Lisa J. Dettling, and Joanne W. Hsu (2020). “Wealth Gaps by Race and Ethnicity in the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances,” FEDS notes. Washington: Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve System, 28 Sept. 2020, https://doi.org/10.17016/2380-7172.2797. https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/disparities-in-wealth-by-race-and-ethnicity-in-the-2019-survey-of-consumer-finances-20200928.htm
With so much less accumulated wealth available to weather a crisis, it should come as no surprise that African Americans and other people of color are more likely to be extremely low-income and so much more prone to falling into homelessness. And the race continues to create opportunities for upward mobility in the Bay Area and across the country, even if you start from the same economic standing. The data shows that in 99% of neighborhoods in the United States, black boys earn less as adults than white boys, even though both grow up in two-parent families with similar levels of income, wealth and education.
You can learn more about the root causes of homelessness—and the proven solutions—directly from nationally renowned experts in Exploring the Systemic Causes of Homelessness, a webinar presented by Destination: Home and San Jose Spotlight in celebration of Affordable House Month 2022. Check it out here.
Systems Of Poverty: Understanding Structural Causes Of Homelessness
Taken together, these systemic forces have created an environment where a growing number of our neighbors are pushed into homelessness every day. And while these forces are particularly strong here in the heart of Silicon Valley, they are hardly unique to our community. A growing body of scholars and experts have directly linked a number of these very same factors to our current homelessness crisis in America.
For a deeper dive into research on structural causes of homelessness, we recommend browsing the resources on the National Alliance to End Homelessness website: https://endhomelessness.org
While all this evidence points to how deeply embedded homelessness is intertwined with other problems plaguing our society, it also offers a signal of hope: since homelessness is indeed the result of our own collective actions as a society, it also means that we power to solve this crisis.A
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