I facilitate the Cowlitz Housing First! Coalition, made up of 27 local agencies that help with the planning and implementation of our county’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. The spirit of why we do this work was emphasized at the recent Washington State Conference on Ending Homelessness where reinvigorating speakers brought issues of homelessness to the forefront.
One of the conference presenters, Paul Boden, spoke to the history of homelessness and the injustice that has occurred to those in poverty over the past few decades. He reminded the audience that mental health and drug addiction existed prior to 1983, when mass homelessness became an issue and emergency shelters started to open.
Modern day homelessness as we currently know it did not exist prior to 1983. Why? America was once better at providing housing for its most vulnerable citizens — those living in poverty, elderly, ex-criminals and those with disabilities. What happened? Whether you call it Reaganomics or something else, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, the agency that funds affordable and subsidized housing projects, had its budget authority cut by 77 percent from 1978 to 1983. The Department of Agriculture’s rural housing program also saw deep cuts. The rural housing program built 38,650 affordable housing units in 1979 and only 763 affordable units in 2011.
Why do we tolerate such neglect to provide everyone with decent, safe housing? Doesn’t everyone deserve a home?
To give you an idea on the extent of the paradigm shift over the years around providing housing to the most vulnerable, below are two quotes from federal legislation:
n The 1937 Housing Act committed to “remedy the unsafe and sanitary housing conditions & the acute shortage of decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of lower income”
n The Quality Housing & Work Responsibility Act of 1998, as part of the welfare reform, declared “the federal government cannot through its direct action alone provide housing of every American, or even the majority of its citizens.”
The cuts to affordable and subsidized housing continue year after year. And, in general, homelessness has been on the rise over the last three decades. Furthermore, the method in which the housing and homeless programs are now typically run requires the people who need the services the most to qualify – they have to be “good enough,” complete onerous applications and meet a long list of requirements or they are left to the streets and jails.
Who becomes homeless due to bad housing policy? The expert panel at the conference, made up of consumers (formerly homeless), would tell you that homelessness does not have a face. Most of us are one paycheck, one health crisis, and one job loss way from homelessness. The panelists discussed the stereotypes of the homeless population, such as the homeless abuse drugs and alcohol or they are lazy and choose to be homeless.
One young panel member stated she didn’t become homeless because of a drug/alcohol addiction; she developed a drug/alcohol addiction because she was homeless to cope with her situation. An elderly veteran discussed his experience with homelessness at the age of 60 after serving in the military for ten years and working for 40 years. Due to one bad choice — which resulted in a DUI conviction — he lost everything due to fines and lawyer fees. He found himself living on the streets with door after door of opportunity closed to him. He wanted work, he wanted a safe home, but all they saw was his criminal record, not his years of service and dedication to the country.
He is now housed and works for AmeriCorps on homelessness issues in his county, addressing the same stereotypes that he had to deal with while living on the streets.
Since 2006, the Cowlitz County Housing First! Coalition has worked hard to decrease homelessness by 30 percent in the county. We have done this by using strategic planning, implementing evidence-based practices and improving collaboration among homeless, housing, health and mental health providers. However, even given this success, the chronically homeless population — those that have been homeless for long periods of time — has not seen a reduction in their numbers, remaining at approximately 40 to 60 persons each year. We need to work harder to serve this population.
It would be wise to speak out for housing as a basic human right and educate yourself on the issues because, remember, homelessness does not have a face.
Dawn Hanson is Housing and Community Development Planner for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments.