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A Student’s Concern: The Chronic Problem of Homelessness in the United States

Submitted By: Alex Li

Homelessness, the state of being without a home, has become an increasing problem in the United States. Even though we live in the 21st Century’s most advanced and industrialized nation, we have yet to significantly reduce the amount of homeless people in recent years. The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report recorded a whopping 610,042 homeless people, including 46,924 unaccompanied homeless children. What is even more troubling is the problem of homeless veterans, who comprise around 12 percent of the total number of homeless adults. Multiple causes have contributed to this unfortunate phenomenon. This issue is rarely discussed in school, but, it is definitely something we should be concerned about. Rising housing prices in many cities coupled with poor economic outlooks have caused many to lose their homes and economic security. Furthermore, many cities are reluctant to deal with the cause of the problem, which is not helpful either.

The criminalization of being homeless has risen in recent years. According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), the number of cities that has criminalized sleeping in cars, a direct attack on homeless people, has doubled in the last few years. The NLCHP has also reported that the number of cities that have banned sitting or lying in public spaces has risen 43 percent in the last few years. The sad fact is that instead of dealing with the root of the problem: expensive housing, poor job opportunities, mental illness, etcetera. They have simply taken the approach pioneered by San Francisco and New York City in the 1990’s, of making the problem more invisible. They make life harder for homeless people without solving the problem in any meaningful way. Less than 20 miles away in Palo Alto, simply sleeping in one’s own car can result in a $1000 fine or six months in jail. The mayor of Honolulu even told the New York Times that, “ tourists want to see their paradise…[not] homeless people sleeping.” It seems that tourists who provide economic revenue are more important than the mayor’s own constituents. Many people’s lack of empathy for fellow citizens and human beings certainly has contributed to this problem.

Unfortunately, private investment has also contributed to homelessness in the United States. Continued investments into expensive urban projects have caused home prices and rents to rise, forcing poorer people into the outer rings of the city. The even more worse off who are seen as annoying speed bumps slowing down the road of progress and development, are forcibly removed and relocated so the elite can get their way. This endless need of gentrification has caused great pains for homeless people and sows fear and distrust among the community. Unable to provide for themselves, some have resorted to petty crime, ending up in what should be an institution of national shame: the US prison system.

Putting homeless people in jail is not the solution, although we’d like to believe our current prison system is a rehabilitative system our current recidivism rates show that that is false. Instead we should focus on what works, publicly funded housing. According to Al-Jazeera, more than 12.8 percent of the nation’s supply of low-income housing has been lost forever since 2008. This is a disaster. From a fiscal conservative’s point of view, it is obvious that public funding of housing for homeless people is much more effective at reducing homelessness and saving money compared to simply putting homeless people in jail.  Multiple studies show that providing housing which helps homeless people to be more stable and find jobs more easily is much cheaper than jailing them. In a University of North Carolina at Charlotte study, Moore Place saved over 1.8 million dollars in health care costs with fewer emergency care visits and fewer days spent in the hospital for homeless people. A 78 percent drop in arrests of homeless people was also recorded, giving police more time to focus on more important tasks such as finding burglars, stopping crime, and actually protecting the public. Some lawmakers have realized this; Utah for example launched the Housing First program, which has reduced homelessness in the state by 78 percent (Al Jazeera) in an economy affected by recession and poor job creation in the private sector.

To conclude, it is obvious that homelessness is a big problem in the United States, however we do have the tools as an industrialized nation to permanently solve this problem. When there’s a will there’s a way, and when we as a nation commit ourselves to solving this problem we will end it. This lack of empathy for fellow human beings has to go away, and politicians must get past petty scapegoating of the poor and homeless to actually helping to solve the problem. John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address said, “ If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”  Homeless people’s problems are everybody’s problems, and affect everyone in society. As the next generation of students, let’s commit ourselves to end homelessness for the betterment of all people in the United States! Starting from ourselves, we can make the world a better place.

About Timothy Lee

Timothy Lee is a senior at Monta Vista High School. He moved back to the States in 2012 after living in Beijing, China for two years, and currently lives in Cupertino, California. This cross-culture experience has enabled him to encounter a vast variety of environments in which part of his writings are based on. He is also currently an officer in HEARTS, a nonprofit organization, and a VP at Silicon Valley DECA. He also has a passion in web design, computer science, badminton, and writing.

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