There was a time in US history, around 35 years ago, that homelessness was an emergency. There were a few long term homeless people who were well known around town (Otis from Andy Griffith Show), but the majority of the population were unfamiliar with the concept of homelessness and when it occurred, religious groups, neighbors and sometimes government would quickly respond. If a family with children were to show up without a place to live, the community would not rest until that family was in a safe space.
We started opening church basements, then government office buildings at night when they were not used, and eventually gymnasiums, but all under the banner of a temporary space while this emergency is dealt with in the United States. We, the people, all recognized housing was the best for everyone concerned and the leadership of the dominant religions, community groups and local government all had a common set of beliefs that housing was a critical need for a functioning society. This is all to say that the Department of Housing and Urban Development released their 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report Part 1 on March 18, 2021, which is the exact opposite of homelessness as an emergency.
This is not a criticism of HUD. They stepped up when no other federal agency was willing to take on the challenges of addressing homelessness in America. The staff at HUD have saved millions of Americans from hypothermia, exploitation, and death with the housing and services they have funded. Everyone who has ever worked at HUD should be proud of the amazing things accomplished with so little. They have had to deal with every hole in the US social safety net while attempting to manage the complex world of financing affordable housing. When AIDS was ravishing our community, HUD stepped up with housing opportunities. When Veterans were not being served well by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, HUD stepped up with services and housing. When the opioid crisis was killing Americans at an alarming rate, HUD was there with permanent supportive housing.
But the reality is that they have institutionalized homelessness as an industry to manage poor people, and unfortunately most of those individuals and family members come from a minority population. It is now studied, counted, tested, screened, assessed, observed but never solved. How is it useful to report on the number of homeless people in January of 2020 before a pandemic hit the country if we considered homelessness an emergency? Sure, if this was an after action report a year and a half after Katrina to tell the American public what went wrong and what we can do better next time, then this would be a useful piece of information. The 580,466 people identified by HUD in January 2020 who were homeless on that one day may still be homeless today. They are still living through the nightmare of waking up in the morning not knowing where they will lay their head tonight. We are still living through this crisis as a nation 35 years on, and we should not be spending our time counting people when so many are sleeping in tents in the richest country on the planet.
When Hurricane Laura hit Cameron Louisiana in August 2020, FEMA did not send volunteers out to count the number of people who lost their housing and then work on a report for the next 14 months on the demographics of those who lost their housing. That would be unthinkable and useless information to have. Presumably by the 14 month mark, all of those people would have settled their insurance claims and would be well on their way to returning to normal. To the person facing eviction, they feel like a hurricane just hit their life and they want government and community groups to respond with highest degree of urgency. It is so frustrating and upsetting to see resources spent on an annual assessment, a central intake, a survey to assess the best service for your needs, and a shelter being built to house 400 people a night when the mom is just looking for a safe secure quiet place to rock her child to sleep. The fact that every city in America now has an Office or Department of Homeless Services and few have a Department of Housing Placement or an Office of Job Referral is the clearest sign that we have made the crisis into a way of life.
The National Coalition for the Homeless appreciates that HUD recognizes how racist the system has become in saying, “people of color are significantly over-represented among people experiencing homelessness.” That is not really news that needed a study. Just because members of Congress don’t believe that homelessness is real or that racism exists, we should not have to spend millions on reports for them. They will continue to stick their head in the sand no matter if there is a report from HUD or just the word of advocates who testify before them. We could have told you that more people were homeless in January 2020 just based on the increase in requests for food, the kids who reported being homeless in schools across the United States and the call volume to the 211 system. We really did not need a report to say that American is failing to deliver a basic human right: housing. The report is deeply flawed in its methodology and we have written about that in the past, but the conclusions are important. Things were bad in January of 2020 and they only got worse during the pandemic. Now what are we going to do about it?