Homelessness has answers but they’re big and structural.
Barbara Poppe of Barbara Poppe and Associates of Columbus, Ohio, has studied the issue for nearly 30 years and served as Executive Director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness 2009 to 2014 and addressed those answers with me during a recent phone call.
The big answers summed up
1.) Increase the minimum wage.
2.) Subsidize lower-cost rental housing.
3.) Fund universal health care
4.) Create better housing solutions for victims of domestic violence.
Poppe said the minimum wage has not kept up with its initial goal: what’s the minimum wage one needs on which to live.
“Many people don’t earn a wage to cover the cost of living,” she said. “Wages are just not adequate.
For those working on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, it often takes multiple jobs to cover the basics of housing, transportation, food and other bills.
As those wages have been stagnant – if the minimum wage had kept up with the rate of inflation it would be just shy of $11 – housing costs have risen dramatically. That further decreases the buying power of low wages.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, housing costs have increased 777 percent since 1967, when the minimum wage was $1.40 an hour. The wage – which was last raised nationally in 2009 – is now $7.25 an hour.
Worse, Poppe noted, federal subsidies go to those who own the most expensive homes. The more expensive the home, the more mortgage write-offs the owner gets plus a homestead tax credit.
The federal government, she said, needs to subsidize housing for poorer people as a means to stabilize the population. Those making the minimum wage and sometimes well above it are one paycheck away from eviction. Even landlords, she notes, have sought federal help because eviction is expensive for them.
Perhaps the biggest answer is universal health, she said. A lack of access to health care is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Anyone already in a tenuous situation can be on the streets within a month or two simply due to a minor injury or failure to get appropriate medication. Once homeless, they are certainly not going to get any health care whatsoever unless it’s courtesy of the emergency room – the most expensive health care possible.
States that accepted federal Medicare help saw a reduction of homelessness, Poppe said.
Finally, communities need to find fast and effective ways to house those fleeing domestic violence. There needs to be immediate shelters as well as a transition to housing that’s more stable.
The biggest problem is so many of the causes are intertwined. It’s not just a low wage but low wage combined with a health issue. Or access to decent child care that’s affordable. Or transportation to a low-wage job.
That’s what leads to the downward spiral, Poppe said.
“One you become homeless,” she said. “Try to get a new job. Try to get a new apartment.”
The stigma of the word “homeless” becomes worse than the situation could have been.
There are answers to homelessness. But only when society wants to get serious about it.