State of the Union On Homelessness: Is There An Answer?

Over half a million Americans are homeless on any given day in the United States. Some of them are teenagers. Some are veterans. Many suffer from mental illness. Many are families. But a number of promising new initiatives are underway which bring some light to the American homelessness epidemic.

Homeless veteran in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC. Washington has the country's highest rate of veteran homelessness. photo via Elvert Barnes/Flickr)
Homeless veteran in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC. Washington has the country’s highest rate of veteran homelessness.
photo via Elvert Barnes/Flickr)

Back in late 2009, the Obama administration made ending homelessness among veterans a priority. Many veterans return from their military service unable to find or sustain jobs, due to any number of factors including depression, PTSD, substance abuse, or the fact that there just aren’t that many jobs that soldiers leave the military equipped for.

It’s one of few issues that both Democrats and Republicans can both feasibly get behind, so federal spending for this issue has increased from $400 million in 2009 to $1.5 billion this year. Last summer, President Obama stopped by The Daily Show and told Jon Stewart that veteran homelessness had decreased by a third since 2009. Citing the difficulty in getting exact figures about transient and ever-changing populations, PolitiFact ruled the president’s statement as Mostly True.

In July 2014, Michelle Obama announced that 182 state and local officials had signed a pledge to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Back in January, New Orleans became the first city to fully solve its homeless veteran problem, placing over 200 homeless vets in permanent housing and ensuring a rapid response for other veterans who became homeless.

Change in Veteran Homelessness 2013-2014
(via The State of Homelessness in America 2015, National Coalition to End Homelessness)

But veterans are, of course, just one piece of the homelessness puzzle. Still, the discussion of ending homelessness rather than simply getting homeless people off the streets it is a new one, says Matthew Doherty, executive director of federal coordinating body US Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Overall, homelessness nationwide is on a slight decline. Between 2013 and 2014 the overall homeless population fell by 2.3 percent, but that varies widely between states. In Nevada, Idaho and Massachusetts, the number of homeless people has actually gone up substantially in recent years. In cities like Boston, Washington D.C. and San Francisco, housing costs are prohibitively high and getting worse.

Virginia has the lowest rate, with 8.5 homeless for every 10,000 people in 2014. Hawaii has nearly six times as many, with 49.5 homeless for every 10,000 people. In fact, things are so severe in Hawaii that Governor David Ige declared (and just extended) a state of emergency in order to deal with the state’s homelessness problem.

Overall Change In Homelessness 2013-2014
(via The State of Homelessness in America 2015, National Coalition to End Homelessness)

Youth homelessness is also a problem, and in many ways a harder one to solve. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, 34 percent of the total homeless population in the United States was under the age of 24 in 2014. As many as 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, and 46 percent of that population say that they’re homeless because their parents kicked them out or they ran away after being rejected by their family.

On the state level, it seems like Nevada is the worst-case scenario on all fronts. Their veteran homeless problem actually went up 44 percent between 2013 and 2014, the biggest spike in the nation. Their overall homeless population also had a 25 percent spike during that same period. Worst of all, they have the country’s highest percentage of homeless children and youth.

Nevada’s problem is largely that the state, particularly the Las Vegas area, attracts unemployed individuals who are drawn to the city. “Our largest increase took place in the [single] individuals category,” said Michele Fuller-Hallauer, continuum of care coordinator for the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition.

“Many things contribute to that, especially given that we are a transient community. We have a lot of folks who come to our community thinking they will have a job opportunity and that’s not the case. This is such a complex issue, you can’t just give one answer.”

Homeless Youth By State 2013-2014
(via The State of Homelessness in America 2015, National Coalition to End Homelessness)

(featured image via Graf Spee/Flickr)