Gimme Shelter

The homeless crisis touches everyone in America.

Posted Dec 08, 2019

As cities across America grapple with people living on the streets, homelessness is becoming impossible to ignore. More than half a million Americans are homeless each night, including a staggering 2.5 million children who are homeless in any given year. Children are homeless in every city, county, and state.

Prompted by a case taken up for consideration by the United States Supreme Court on December 6, national news shows have been drawing attention to the issue of homelessness. On December 10, 60 Minutes aired a segment called “Unsheltered.” On December 6, the NPR show "Air Talk" featured a segment on homelessness in southern California.

The case currently being considered by the Supreme Court is famously known as the Boise decision. The case revolves around claims by several currently and formerly homeless plaintiffs that the city of Boise, Idaho, violated their constitutional rights by criminally prosecuting them for sleeping outside. The homeless individuals argued that criminalizing homelessness amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Last year’s Boise decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals requires cities to allow people to sleep in public places, even on sidewalks if there are not enough shelter beds for them to sleep in. In the opinion, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote:

"As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter."

Opponents of the Boise decision fear that it will create humanitarian crisis of homeless encampments that pose a health and safety risk. 

So why aren't there more shelters to house the homeless? Why are people being arrested for sleeping on the streets even though there are no shelter beds for them to sleep in? A civil rights attorney pointed out on "Air Talk" that it costs the City of Los Angeles that $229/night to put people in jail. "We could house people in studio apartments for much less than that," she argues. She adds that cities have money allocated for mental health that they are not using to shelter the homeless. 

The homeless in our country are not a monolith. The homeless population includes victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, individuals who are employed but cannot afford the cost of housing, mentally ill individuals, and individuals afflicted with drug addiction. Individual solutions for different types of homeless people must be found. A "one-shelter-fits all" approach will not work. A victim of domestic violence, for example, may not feel safe in a co-ed shelter and might prefer to live on the street. A shelter for women and children only would be a better fit in this situation.

Drug addiction leads many people to homelessness. But as Anderson Cooper points out on 60 Minutes, even when people stay sober for years they cannot afford the cost of housing their families. And so they resort to homeless encampments like "Tent City Three" in Seattle. 

Cooper interviewed Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been researching homelessness for 35 years. He doesn't believe drug addiction and mental illness explain why there's been a recent rise in the number of homeless. "Why is this happening?" Cooper asked Culhane, whose answer was surprising: "The best evidence we have is that it's the real estate market. You have a lot of wealthier individuals, especially in places like Seattle, who are driving up the price of housing and there's just not enough housing to filter down to the lower-income people."

Homelessness has been an invisible problem in the United States. But as homelessness increases and affects more neighborhoods across the country, people will have to wake up to the problem and search for solutions. There have already been some successes. Since the federal government committed money for housing subsidies and supportive social services for veterans, the number of homeless veterans has declined by 50% in the last 10 years. 

Private individuals are starting to give back to the community. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, committed more than $300 million to help the homeless in Seattle and other parts of the country. Apple has pledged $2.5 billion in California. But professor Culhane points out that private donations will only go so far. Federal, state, and local agencies need to play a role in finding solutions to a spreading humanitarian crisis.