There are half a million homeless people in the US, with 60,000 homeless people in New York City alone? A third of the country lives in poverty. Between 1/3 and 1/2 of those living in poverty have mental illness and about 1/3 have a disability. Just as many have drug problems. These staggering numbers may be a huge surprise to you. You may feel some pangs of sympathy before you finish reading this and go on with your day to day lives. Or you may even have the attitude that it’s their own fault and if they “just get a job” they wouldn’t be like this.
The NPR article on “Tackling homelessness in San Francisco, and beyond” does such a great job of informing us just how easy it is to end up homeless. Much of the homeless population is dealing with major life challenges including mental illness, disabilities, loss of jobs/income, and substance abuse problems. There is also a major overlap, meaning that any given individual may be dealing with 2 or 3 of these issues at the same time which can make it very difficult to break out of the cycle of poverty without some sort of assistance.
Many times it’s because of these challenging situations that people become homeless. Job loss, specifically, is a huge factor. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and are only “one paycheck away.” This can be frightening to think about especially for people who have no savings, no family, and no support system to serve as a buffer in case something like being laid off or losing a job happens. Even a pay cut can greatly put people at risk. As big cities are focusing on building luxury housing and gentrifying certain areas, the people in those areas are left unable to afford to live in their own neighborhoods and in essence are being forgotten and left behind.
What can be done about it? One of the most important things is to raise awareness of the problem. It seems that for so many of us we prefer not to think about the homeless because it may not directly affect us. Another issue is that there needs to be a concentrated effort going into increasing affordable housing options. In “Tackling Homelessness…” there was a conversation about the homeless US veteran population which is currently down 35%. This is due to targeted investments in housing efforts for the veterans. This is a solid example that shows that the homeless problem is a solvable one.
Lastly, many homeless shelters could benefit from improvements as well. For example, some shelters only offer a place to sleep at night. Then, in the morning the people have to leave the shelter and are left to their own devices to get through the day. This does nothing to assist them in breaking the cycle of poverty. This lack of day services deprives them of building relationships with social workers, access to medication, and access to substance abuse services, etc. Some programs that do help people get into housing require they be clean and sober before they will help them. This does not work and priorities need to be switched-Housing first, then substance abuse treatment.
In Atlanta, where drawchange is based, we also have huge homeless numbers. Drawchange is focused on empowering the children we work with in homeless shelters through the power of art. We see firsthand how becoming homeless can happen quickly and how it devastates families. Just last week at one of our shelter programs, Kristen* told one of our volunteers “my mommy died,” as she worked on her artwork. Kristen is 9 years old and has two older brothers, a 14 year old, and a 21 year old who now has custody of both younger siblings. Their mother passed away within the last year from a chronic illness and now they are left to deal with the aftermath. Through art making and building relationships with these children we empower them to make their own choices, overcome obstacles, and visualize goals for themselves. Each week we see how this not only brings joy to them but also increases their self-confidence.
After reading this, you may be asking how you can help. First off, we encourage you to be kind. You never know who may be struggling on the inside but smiling on the outside. Aside from that, drawchange is always needing volunteersto help out at the shelters and we are always accepting donations. Please see our website for more information on how you can volunteer and donate.
Click here to listen to the article that inspired this post.
Blog post by Justin Davis, ATR-BC
*Name changed to respect anonymity