What Is Homelessness?
Homelessness is defined as the state or condition of having no regular dwelling place -- a home.
Persons experiencing homelessness lack a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence. This situation includes those persons whose primary nighttime residence is: a supervised public or private shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations; a time-limited/non-permanent transitional housing arrangement for individuals engaged in mental health and/or substance use disorder treatment; or a public or private facility not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation.
People who are "doubled-up" or "couch surfing" with family or friends are also considered "homeless" because they are sharing another person’s dwelling on a temporary basis where continued tenancy is contingent upon the hospitality of the primary leaseholder or owner and can be rescinded at any time without notice, thus placing these individuals at imminent risk for becoming homeless. Of course, families and individuals sleeping in motels, abandoned trailers or buildings, cars or vans and other places not meant for human habitation are also considered homeless.
Yet, providing homes for people is not the sole solution for homelessness. It is a complex issue, and there are many challenges and variables to consider and address. Contributing factors such as food insecurity, health care, living wage, disabilities, public safety, land use, and housing markets must be addressed concomitantly. An awareness of the dynamic tension between personal volition, political will and public policy is necessary. Nevertheless, the simple solution to homelessness is still housing!
A National Tragedy
It has been estimated that on any given night in America, between 735,000 and 1.5 million people are homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year; 35% of them are families with children, which is the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
Homelessness is a national tragedy that has haunted our sociopolitical landscape since America's founding. It has been seen throughout our history: during the colonial period when large numbers of "vagabonds" were transported from England to the American colonies in the 18th century; following the Civil War, when large numbers of freed slaves migrated to the North; during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which caused an epidemic of poverty, hunger and homelessness that sent two million impoverished people migrating across the country; during the 1970s when community mental health centers mostly did not materialize to serve the needs of deinstitutionalized mentally ill patients; and during the prosperous 1980s when the gentrification of downtown areas significantly diminished the number of SROs and public and low-income housing units, forcing most of their residents into the streets.
In the U.S., homelessness is now so thoroughly accepted as a fact of life here -- the most powerful nation on earth -- that it doesn't even prompt cheap campaign rhetoric promising its abolishment.
Instead of working to end homelessness, many local communities invent ways in which to remove the people experiencing homelessness. The most used method involves the enactment of laws and ordinances that make certain activities (sleeping on a park bench, public urination, open container, trespassing, etc.) illegal and punishable by incarceration. This is called "criminalization of homelessness," that is, penalizing people for natural acts occurring as a result of their condition. It is using the judicial system to solve a social problem. Thus, many municipalities achieve their politically-expedient goal of moving homeless people out of sight, rather than out of the streets and shelters into permanent housing.
A Growing Concern
The homeless population in Pinellas County has grown at an alarming rate during the past decade. Over 7,000 people are experiencing homelessness on any given night; hundreds of our neighbors continue to sleep on the streets, in their cars, and in other places not meant for human habitation.
In addition to a growing homeless population, the face of homelessness has changed over the years. Because of economic conditions and many social factors, homelessness has increased and now includes more families with children, an increased number of veterans and a greater number of working poor households.
Even though insufficient income is cited as the most common reason for homelessness, more than 33% of homeless adults work full or part-time, and about 23% receive disability, veteran or retirement benefits. Despite these sources of income, low wages or other personal or environmental barriers have led them to the streets or into emergency shelters. The loss of a significant number of public housing units has also contributed to the problem.
Preventing and Ending Homelessness
While there are private and public agencies that serve the homeless on the micro level and coordinate systems of care on the macro level, there are not many agencies which have the sole function to prevent and end homelessness. There are even fewer that implement this mission from a faith-based perspective. From this vantage point, forged through open and frank dialogue, individuals and congregations have bridged religious and cultural divides to form a dynamic partnership dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in St. Petersburg and beyond.
No one should be homeless; housing is a human right. No one should be poor; wealth should be distributed equitably rather than concentrated in the hands of a few. No one should be hungry; the earth still produces enough food to feed the 7 billion who live here. People need affordable housing, livable incomes, fresh food and water, health care, education, and protection of their civil and human rights.
This is our cause, and if this resonates with you, We invite you and your congregation to join with us in this campaign to transform our community and world. There are many ways in which to support and get involved. You can make a difference!
"Because of economic conditions and many social factors, homelessness has increased and now includes more families with children, an increased number of veterans and a greater number of working poor households."