What is Homelessness and Why is it an Issue?

Homelessness is defined as “the state of having no home.” In the 1950s, the idea of homelessness was just that, an idea. About “70% of the world’s population of about 2.5 billion people,” lived in rural areas. Today, however, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) data also ranks the United States (U.S.) as 11th behind Australia, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and others, in terms of homelessness as a percent of the total population in 2015. What is particularly interesting about these statistics is that the first two, Australia and Canada, have plans to address homelessness, with the latter two, Germany and Sweden, not having any type of national plan.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, an estimated 553,000 people experienced homelessness on a single 2018 night. In terms of homelessness by state, California ranked highest with a raw amount of 129,000 people and North Dakota ranked the lowest in raw count with 542 homeless people through a point-in-time count. Compared to 2008, about 664,000 people in the United States had experienced homelessness on a single night. When looking at California in 2008, about 158,000 people, more than a sixth of the total, had experienced some type of homelessness.

Definitions:

Sheltered Homelessness: referring to those who stay in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens.

Unsheltered Homelessness: referring to those whose primary nighttime location is a public or private place not designated for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for people (streets, vehicles, or parks).

Chronically Homeless Individual: referring to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.

A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City.
A homeless man sleeps under an American flag blanket on a park bench in New York City. Source: Jacobin. Creative Commons.

During December of 2017, “Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty,” visited California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., and compiled his findings into an associated report. Here, he introduces the U.S. as one of the world’s richest societies, a trendsetter, and a sophisticated place to live. After such praise, he contrasts the country with his own observations and data gathered from OECD. He also indirectly attacks the U.S., going so far as to mention that “the strict word limit for this report makes it impossible to delve deeply into even the key issues,: showing the immensity of the issues at hand that affect those living in the U.S., known as a “land of stark contrasts.”

In the same report, Alston also noted the at-the-time recent policies that the U.S. had enacted, such as tax breaks and financial windfalls (a sudden, unexpected profit or gain) for the wealthy, reducing welfare benefits for the poor, eliminating protections (financial, environmental, health, and safety) that benefit the middle class and the poor, removing access to health insurance for over 20 million people, increasing spending on defense, and many more. One of the solutions proposed to such an important issue was to decriminalize being poor.

However, leaders of cities and states may think otherwise.

A view of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles
Bunker Hill as seen from Los Angeles City Hall. Source: English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

For example, Los Angeles and other central cities are constantly seen with “giant cranes and construction” building towers and other magnificent architecture solely to “house corporate law firms, investment banks, real-estate brokerages, tech firms” and other ‘big-money’ companies. However, in those same cities, when looked closely, can make out “encampments of tattered tents, soiled mattresses, dirty clothing, and people barely surviving on the streets.” Alston even goes so far as to call out Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for allowing ticketing $300 to have an encampment rather than developing affordable housing for the many people unable to pay for their homes and places of residence. This exacerbates the living conditions of those charged because they are struggling to make necessary payments on time, such as healthcare, food, water, and some sort of shelter, be it a tent or living out on the street. This demonstrates that criminalizing homelessness presents an ethical issue that drags people into an endless cycle of poverty.

“Criminalizing homelessness does not solve the problem. It makes suffering more brutal and drives people living on the streets further into the shadows.” – Human Rights Watch

Looking closer to home, the 2019 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress suggests Alabama has seen progress in lowering the homelessness rate. The report ranked Alabama having the “third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country,” but also having “one of the highest rates of unsheltered homeless youth.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) in 2018, Alabama had 3,434 people experiencing homelessness through a community count. Below is a breakdown of each category for homelessness statistics in Alabama:

  • Total Homeless Population: 3,434
  • Total Family Households Experiencing Homelessness: 280
  • Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: 339
  • Persons Experiencing Chronic Homelessness: 540
  • Unaccompanied Young Adults (Aged 18-24) Experiencing Homelessness: 158

 

  • Total Number of Homeless Students: 14,112
  • Total Number of Unaccompanied Homeless Students: 583
  • Nighttime Residence: Unsheltered: 675
  • Nighttime Residence: Shelters: 735
  • Nighttime Residence: Hotels/motels: 681
  • Nighttime Residence: Doubled up: 12,021
A homeless student, sitting on the sidewalk against a wall, reading a book. The student has a small bag of items beside him and a sign that says, "Homeless."
Not all students look forward to summer vacation. Source: FAMVIN. Creative Commons

Looking at Birmingham, October 2018 was quite a divisive time due to disagreements and allegations for discrimination against Firehouse Ministries who were aiming to receive support from the city in order to build a new Firehouse Shelter. These allegations had caused the city council to vote down said plan, causing Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to criticize such an action, stating:

“We can’t interject race into every situation. Homelessness is not an issue we should be talking about race.” — Randall Woodfin, in an interview with WBRC Fox 6 News.

However, racial disparities still exist when looking into the homeless population. According to a 2018 report from National Alliance to End Homelessness, African Americans “make up more than 40% of the homeless population, but represent 13 percent of the general population.”

Those disparities could potentially be due to “centuries of discrimination in housing, criminal justice, child welfare and education.” They are also influenced by criminal records, which African Americans are more likely to have, leading to difficulties finding housing or a job to pay for housing.

The USICH has proposed a variety of solutions that could potentially reduce the rate of homelessness if not put an end to the issue once and for all. These solution span a wide range of projects and solutions, some listed below:

  • Housing First: Providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again.
  • Rapid Re-Housing/Affordable Housing: Helping individuals quickly “exit homelessness and return to permanent housing” while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty. Access must also be available according to need.
  • Healthcare: Having healthcare would allow these households to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place.
  • Career Pathways: Providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home.
  • Schools: Providing children with schooling can be a sign of safety and connections to a broader community.

Are there any bills that have been introduced into Congress to mitigate homelessness?

Yes, H.R. 1856, titled “Ending Homelessness Act of 2019.” Introduced in March of 2019, this bill, sponsored by Representative maxine Waters of California aims to create a 5-Year Path To End Homelessness, among other things. Currently, this bill has yet to be passed in the House of Representatives before going to the Senate and President.

Homelessness is a Human Rights Issue. The lack to address it is a Violation of stated International Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner, homelessness has “emerged as a global human rights crisis,” particularly in nation-states where resources are available to address it.

In response to questions asked by the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in 2016, Leilani Farha, the U.S. has NOT characterized homelessness as “a human rights violation by U.S. courts.” However, certain ordinances enacted by cities have been scrutinized, such as criminalizing people experiencing homeless that sleep in public areas, partially due to the lack of shelter space. Supreme Court case Bell v. City of Boise et al addressed this very issue by determining that convicting someone of a crime due to status is in violation of the United States Constitution, particularly the Eighth Amendment, stating that convicting “a person of a crime based on his or her status amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Simply by criminalizing homelessness through fines or through time in prison, police and other authority bodies are unconstitutionally affecting those who do not the resources to live a life of stability.

In order to end homelessness, cooperation between public and private bodies are necessary so that equitable access to housing and workforce opportunities for those who’ve been disenfranchised. Following recommendations by the USICH can help relieve many of the problems that many communities, both urban and rural, have to face while also refraining from criminalizing homelessness.

Thoughts on Homelessness in Birmingham

Image of shelter made of cardboard boxes.
David Hilgart. Home. Creative Commons for Flickr.

During the winter break, I spent a lot of time in Birmingham, staying with my sister and with friends, far away from my farm and home in Columbiana. Our farm is more like an animal rescue or sanctuary that does not generate much income but enough to accommodate. Besides hundreds of animals being surrendered or abandoned, we have even had strays walk up our driveway. Our goat, Fred, was the first I remember as we were in disbelief that a goat was just walking the streets and checking out the very sparse neighborhood, curiously coming up to us with some twine wrapped around his neck. For Fred and everyone to follow, my parents and family members have never refused taking in, rehabilitating, or rehoming an animal in need, so maybe that’s why it was so much more obvious of how much worse the picture I have seen in Birmingham is, or what this article is about. In Birmingham, it is people living in the streets witnessed by a city full of people. Walking through five points and down 20th, there is so much evidence and example of homelessness.  Passerby witness but rarely realize that they are seeing many at their most vulnerable or the harsh, daily routine.

Image of street and tunnel wall lined with bags and boxes and evidence of someone's home
Chris Yarzab. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Responsibility of the State

People experiencing homelessness face violations of many human rights, such as inaccessibility to safe and secure housing, an inadequate standard of living, education, liberty and security of the person, privacy, social security, freedom from discrimination, voting, and more which are interconnected.  These human rights are protected by several international human rights treaties. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which bind the state to legal and moral obligations in realizing and protecting the rights of all people. Also, the right to housing recognized by international human rights law doesn’t just mean a right to shelter. It must be adequate and accessible. Battling and overcoming homelessness is not a task of charity as much as an act of justice. Our Public policy and structures should facilitate or lead to a dignified life in the United States. As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we should figure out how to shelter or house those who are homeless.

No one is asking what happened to all the homeless. No one cares, because it’s easier to get on the subway and not be accosted.- Richard Linklater

More recently, I saw many cops parked in the middle of five points as they held up traffic to address some of the people I have seen more statically living there, which brought up the thought of criminalization of homelessness and left me wondering if those cops offer rides to shelters before the ride to a cell.

A look at more vulnerable populations

The most visible type of homelessness is what we see when we walk through Birmingham: people living on the streets or sleeping in the parks or street tunnels. However, more move between shelters and temporary homing maybe with their friends or relatives and more long-term shelter where their experience may not be included in the conversation of homeless persons.

Within 2018 records reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were almost 3,500 people homeless on a given night (280 were family households, 339 were Veterans, 158 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 540 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness). Over 900 of those were concentrated in the Birmingham area. Over the year, there were 14,112 students who faced homelessness in Alabama.

A large portion of the homeless population is affected by mental illness. People with mental illness or other disabilities may face social isolation and may face chronic homelessness. Such individuals may require special types of accommodation or support that may be an obstacle to rehabilitation.  Health issues may cause a person’s homelessness as well as they may be intensified by the experience where poverty and lack of access to care contribute to disparities in health. Another thing to think about is when someone handicapped by a disability loses their parents or caretaker, who will take care of them or will they find tools to live? They could become homeless.

Through the lingering effects of systematic denial of equal rights and opportunities, African American are particularly overrepresented in this system facing a higher risk of poverty, housing discrimination, and incarceration than White Americans

Indigenous people face greater social and economic disadvantage such as lower levels of education or higher levels of unemployment which contribute to higher levels of homelessness in their communities

Women may make up a big portion of those forced to leave their homes fleeing domestic violence or sexual assault. Homeless women may become more isolated for fear of violence, rape, or other abuse. Further, a woman may be separated from her children if she is unable to care for them which challenges her parental rights.

Children and young people are disproportionately affected by homelessness. I have known many classmates and friends who have been homeless as they pursue their education at UAB. Also, Covenant House proclaims that every year, more than 2 million kids in America will face a period of homelessness (The link provides more enlightening and harder-to-swallow statistics). Youth like those emancipated from the foster care system may not have another option. In addition to general human rights laws, children are protected under special rights, like those afforded in the Covenant on the Rights of a Child which describes a higher standard of living and right to protection against neglect, cruelty, exploitation, etc.

Untreated depression and mental illness, self-medication and addiction, childhood trauma and chronic PTSD, abuse and any circumstance that may lead one to homelessness may also create a loop to imprison them. For example, where abstinence is a prerequisite or requirement for homelessness assistance programs, one may not receive help unless they quit, but one cannot quit without relief.

Image of person sitting on roadside
Pedro Ribeiro Simões. Creative Commons for Flickr.

A veteran should not have to stand on the asphalt with a cardboard sign begging for a living in a nation they helped secure and people should not be in the position to be turned down asking for food that was about to be thrown out. In fact, everyone has made contributions and continues to contribute to their society. Homelessness includes people who have paid or pay taxes and those who are paid less than a living wage. It includes people of all labels fleeing abusive conditions or facing escalating housing and living costs. It includes parents and it includes their children who have not had a chance. It also includes all students who are trying to pursue an education to hopefully get a job that will afford them housing. Besides all these achievements, many, including those facing chronic homelessness have endured full lives and have witnessed different forms of trauma. Still, they have survived the circumstances of homelessness, maintaining their humanity and resilience and- intentionally or unintentionally- being that example for others.

Also, keep in mind that going from place to place and not knowing what to do or where you will end up could understandably create a lot of pain and anger. Desperation or frustration may be harder to deal with. Being homeless could even make you apprehensive of ownership or pursuing certain routes that could be encouraged. However, everyone should be afforded options and certain securities.

10 Strategies to End Chronic Homelessness posted by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness:

https://www.usich.gov/tools-for-action/10-strategies-to-end-chronic-homelessness

More immediate examples for anyone to help everyday

If it’s raining or about to, offer the warmth and privacy of an umbrella.

Offer to pay for an uber ride to a nearby shelter as some cannot walk to or have no means of transportation to one.

If you are not comfortable lending cash, you may offer supplies. You could keep these care bags of everyday products, essentials (maybe small shower things you could find in the travel section, gloves, hats, etc), or resources to offer or pass out at crowded shelters.

Invite others to the restaurant you are on your way to and share a meal if they are up for it. The conversation may also allow you to understand, accept, or appreciate their life and vice-versa. Once, a man I invited to eat with me on campus (in an environment where I felt safe enough to) proclaimed his version of Islamophobia (as that was the summation of a popular sentiment in America, especially during those Trump Campaign days) as he explicitly said he didn’t like Muslims when I revealed that of my identity. But it turns out, I was the first Muslim he had personally interacted with and realized he liked before the word “Muslim” exited my mouth. That could happen with anyone of course and homeless (or only hungry in this case) people are not to be “enlightened” and should not be expected to praise our deed, but the conversation and gesture can open this opportunity

Additional Resources:

Federal Links Relevant to homelessness:

https://www.hhs.gov/programs/social-services/homelessness/resources/federal-links/index.html

 

The Right to Stay: Gentrification-Induced Displacement

a sign that reads "Gentrification Zone, Poor people please leave quietly"
Gentrification Zone. Source: Matt Brown, Creative Commons

The Merriam-Webster definition of gentrification is – the process of renovating deteriorated urban neighborhoods through the influx of more middle class residents into that area. The process of gentrification is now a global phenomenon and is no longer confined to cities. Communities all over the world are experiencing mass societal development, often accompanied by restored housing, business investments, the formation of new infrastructure and public services such as coffee shops and park. “In most countries, evictions and expropriations are justified on the basis of some form of general interest of society – the so-called “public interest”  and this concept has often been abused to justify illegal or badly planned mass expulsions of people. The purpose of business investment in neighborhood revitalization is the production of social capital. Social capital is defined as “the interpersonal relationships, institutions, and other social assets of a society or group that can be used to gain advantage.”  Successful social capital and economic opportunities strongly attract and dictate where families choose to reside. In terms of gentrification, social capital is an advertising tool to attract white and more affluent families into revitalized areas.

Various positive aspects of gentrification, such as community development and increased job opportunities, certainly exist. However, negative implications to gentrification, most notably displacement, complicate and in many cases outweigh the benefits. Gentrification-induced displacement (GID) describes how residents may be forced to leave their homes as a result of increased housing costs, housing demolition, evictions, and ownership conversion of rental units. During the progression of GID, increased housing opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods are more likely to be rented by middle income households, thus gradually decreasing the quantity of low-income renters. Eventually, these neighborhoods become unaffordable to low income residents, and force these lower-income residents to secure living in a less expensive neighborhood; these neighbors likely suffer from issues such as underdevelopment and poverty.

Displacement impedes on the human rights of those forced from their home neighborhoods. The right to adequate housing is addressed in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, specifically stating: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, [and] housing…” GID is both a human rights violation and an environmental justice issue. From a global context, the process of gentrification discriminates and targets minorities and low-income populations society. Marginalized populations do not have the political and economic influence to defend their families and communities from displacement. GID compounds these issues of marginalization, thereby multiplying the effects of structural violence on these vulnerable populations. This post will explore the policy prompting GID in two locations: Harlem in New York City, USA and Prabhadevi in Mumbai, India.

NY Night. Source: Travis Leech, Creative Commons

Harlem, New York

Harlem has been at the forefront of American black culture. After World War I, factors such as poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow segregations laws in the American South, and the rise of industrial work opportunities in the North promoted the – the relocation of more than 6 million African-Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West from 1916 through 1970. In the 1900’s, African-Americans constantly battled the oppression of discriminatory housing policies due to blatant racism. In 1937, under the Housing Act, the US federal government developed the Home Owners Loan Corporation; this and other similar agencies were determined unfit and presented a ‘financial risk’ for investment by insurance companies, loan associations, banks, and other financial services companies. In reality, these agencies were deliberately racialized and designed to benefit more white and affluent populations. As a result, neighborhoods were ranked and color-coded based off race, with the color red representing African American communities. This process, known as redlining, is a method utilized by banks, insurance companies, and other financial companies to deny loans to homeowners who lived in these neighborhoods. As a consequence, neighborhoods deemed unfit for loans were left undeveloped compared to ‘white’ neighborhoods.

After the great migration, racial tension and rising rents in segregated areas in the North, resulted in African-Americans forming their own communities within big cities, thereby fostering the progression of African-American culture. Harlem in New York City, a formerly all-white neighborhood that by the 1920s housed some 200,000 African Americans, is the perfect example of the great migration. The relocation of low income African Americans into Harlem is known as the Harlem Renaissance, and during this period African American writers, musicians, and artists expressed their civil and human rights through their respective artistic media. However, towards the early 1980s, African-American culture and identity in Harlem began to and continues to face the threat of gentrification and subsequent displacement. In 1979, the areas in Harlem lying between 110th and 112th street and Fifth Avenue and Manhattan Avenue, located on the edge of Central Park, were designated for redevelopment by the Harlem Urban Development Corporation.  By 1982, 450 housing units displaced by the infrastructural development in that area were relocated into five different units of Section 8 federal housing for low income families. This is just one example of the displacement of low-income minority groups in Harlem.  Since the 1900’s, New York City as a whole continues to experience the effects of GID. The effects of gentrification in Harlem are highlighted by  the demographic shift happening in the city since the beginning of the 1900’s. In the 1950’s, African-Americans accounted for 98% of Harlem’s population; however in 2015 (just 67 years later), this percentage decreased to 65%. The effect of white “return” to Harlem expedites the process of the displacement of low-income African Americans.

Policies Contributing to GID in Harlem

In Harlem, the disproportionate escalation of housing rental prices, influenced by state housing policies, contributes to displacement. In 1969, New York City established and designated a Rent Stabilization Law (RSL), a form of rent control, to all six or more unit buildings built before 1947. Rent stabilization sets maximum rates for annual rent increases during lease renewal. Every year, the NYC rent guideline board meets to determine the annual rent increase landlords can charge tenants. Currently almost half of the rental apartments in NYC, about 1 million units with 2.6 million people living in them, are stabilized. Still, “rent-stabilized apartments are disappearing at an alarming rate: since 2007, at least 172,000 apartments have been deregulated. To give an example of how quickly affordable housing can vanish, between 2007 and 2014, 25% of the rent-stabilized apartments on the Upper West Side of Manhattan were deregulated.” The intention of this law is to protect tenants from unreasonable rent spikes, however, amendments to the RSL legislation in 2003 created a loophole allowing renters to subvert stabilization. The amendment to RSL legalized preferential rate – “a rent which an owner agrees to charge that is lower than the legal regulated rent that the owner could lawfully collect.” In theory, this amendment is supposed relieve the pressure of rent on tenants, but on the contrary, it provides landlords an opportunity to exploit lower income tenants. Under preferential rent, Owners have the choice to terminate preferential rent and charge the tenant higher legal regulated rent upon renewal of the lease, forcing tenants to either pay more rent or relocate to cheaper housing.

Evening in the Slums, Mumbai. Source: Adam Cohn, Creative Commons.

Prabhadevi, Mumbai

In Prabhadevi, Mumbai, gentrification gained prominence after the decline of textile mills. Post-industrial / neoliberal policies resulted in the sale of mill lands for large amounts of money to private developers. Gradually, huge mill landmass in the main part of the city became a central region for gentrification as land transformed from mills, to malls, and eventually towers. From 2000 to 2001, the area around standard mills was surrounded by 4 slums in which thousands of families resided. After the mills closed, some of the population left the area in search of employment in the suburbs while other families stayed in the area. From 2004 to 2005, the mill lands in Prabhadevi, Mumbai were sold to private corporate builders and remaining agricultural land was redeveloped into high end commercial or residential buildings. Land value and infrastructure continue to develop in this area, and consequently by the end of year 2015, 3 out of 4 slums were converted into Slum rehabilitation (SRA) buildings. The revitalization of these slums into high-rise towers attracted more affluent populations. In 20 years, Prabhadevi underwent a revolution from a rural slum to the down-town and cosmopolitan landmark of the city. The rapid development of the city also contributed to the rent gap between residents. The high-rise towers developing in this area are leased exclusively to the upper-class and elite.

In terms of both Harlem and Prabhadevi, “when rental units become vacant in gentrifying neighborhoods, they are more likely to be leased by middle-income households. Only indirectly, by gradually shrinking the pool of low-rent housing, does the re-urbanization of the middle class appear to harm the interests of the poor.”

Policies Contributing to GID in Mumbai

India’s federal policies play an important role in GID through three mechanisms:

  • The process of gentrification in India, which began in 1998, was greatly expedited by federal housing policies. “India’s 1998 housing and habitat policy emphasized the role of the private sector, as the other partner to be encouraged for housing construction and investment in infrastructure facilities. This resulted into rapid growth in private investment in housing with the emergence of real estate developers mainly in metropolitan cities.”
  • India’s 2002-2007 Five-Year Plan initiated the ambitious urban renewal program, renamed in 2015, “Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation” (AMRUT). The AMRUT program administered the rejuvenation of slums, pollution, and urban poverty in over 65 cities.
  • India’s federal governments 2012-2017 five-year plan’s main goal is to create a ‘slum free India’ by enshrining public-private partnerships in slum rehousing. “This five-year model gives developers access to valuable slum land in exchange for an obligation to rehouse the displaced slum dwellers in a portion of the multistory flats built on the site- a process known as transfer of development rights (TDR).”

Conclusion

Harlem and Prabhadevi are just two examples of what’s happening every day, all over the globe. As countries and communities continue to develop, land is inevitably going to be utilized and transformed for the sake of public interest. Unfortunately, land is a finite resource, which is the reason why gentrification-induced displacement is a prominent concern and reality for millions of people. As countries and communities continue to progress, we need to start asking ourselves a very important question: is displacement inevitable?  If so, what policies are in place to protect displaced people from further marginalization? What policies are currently effective in stopping the GID and how can we implement those policies in different regions around the world? Future research and policies regarding displacement need to address these issues in order to find a feasible and sustainable solution for future displacement. As a global community, we can continue to educate and empower each other to protect our rights, homes, and families.