We are all one step away from homelessness. The security we have in our jobs, homes, and family can disappear in the blink of an eye. Homelessness does not just happen to those who made “bad” choices in their lives, people on drugs or convicts. Homelessness can happen to those who lose their jobs or affected by natural disasters. Homelessness affects those with mental illness who cannot find the services they need. Homelessness affects those leaving abusive situations. Homelessness affects our children who are neglected or rejected because of their sexual orientation. Homelessness affects those who served our country and fought for our freedoms.
The homeless are our neighbors, our peers, our friends forgotten. The homeless are us.
While no count of the homeless is quite accurate:
- There are 730,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.
- Of that number, 238,110 are people in families, and
- 404,957 are individuals.
- 17 percent of the homeless population is considered chronically homeless and
- 12 percent of the homeless population – 67,000 – are veterans.
- 3 million people, 1.3 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year.
What might keep someone homeless? It’s not a lack of will to pull oneself out of such a situation. Who among us would choose to remain homeless? Such circumstances are embarrassing and degrading. We must understand why our neighbors are homeless in order to help them. Many factors are involved – finding affordable housing, finding a job, physical ailments or mental health issues and no services to address them. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) a family with one full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford rent for a 2-bedroom home anywhere in the US. In other words, a single mom or dad with 2 kids cannot afford a home even if they are working full-time. Imagine if those kids needed medical attention or they were laid off? What then?
Why discuss homelessness on a health blog, because homelessness and health or inextricably linked. About half of the homeless have suffer from mental health issues – many are schizophrenic. Almost half of the homeless have addiction issues. Yet they do not have access to treatment for these issues. Those who are homeless often cannot seek treatment for physical illnesses like HIV/AIDS or diabetes (type 1 or 2) or afford medications to treat them. And even if they were to get the medication, where would they keep it? How could they refrigerate their insulin or safely keep the needles to inject it with? And if they cannot help themselves, they often end up in emergency rooms. According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, homeless people spent an average of four days longer per hospital visit than comparable non-homeless people. This extra cost, approximately $2,414 per hospitalization, is attributable to homelessness. A study of hospital admissions of homeless people in Hawaii revealed that 1,751 adults were responsible for 564 hospitalizations and $4 million in admission costs. Their rate of psychiatric hospitalization was over 100 times higher than their non-homeless cohort. The researchers conducting the study estimate that the excess cost for treating these homeless individuals was $3.5 million or about $2,000 per person.
How can we help our fellow men, women and children when they need us the most? One way to do so is to participate in the HUD point-in-time counts. At the end of January, communities canvass their cities to determine who is homeless in order to receive funds for services and programs to address needs and end homelessness including health services.
On January 22, 2012 Austin Involved is helping out Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) with their Point-In-Time Count in Travis County. As part of the count, ECHO is providing (with the help of Austin Involved) socks and travel sized toiletries. And I plan to bring along some candy – which is ever so meaningful to the hungry and those on drugs (do not judge them for being on drugs, they still deserve to eat) or who may be in detox. Those wanting to join us please RSVP at http://austininvolved.org/what-we-do/community-projects/. Those wanting to help the homeless in their communities – contact one of your local homeless service organizations.
Other ways to help:
- Donate to local clothing closets those that will give your donations away for free (remember when you have nothing, even a $1 at Goodwill can be too expensive) like – Lisa’s Hope Chest here in Austin. Donate:
- Household goods
- Stuffed Animals
- Clothing – not just a t-shirt but socks and underwear too
- Old phones (these can help the abused call 911 for help)
- Carry candy in your car or purse and hand it out to those panhandling on the street. Food helps.
- Contribute to food drives and pantries
- Don’t judge – Listen to the stories of those who need our help, you never know who you’ll meet or what you’ll learn. Smile and wish them a good day. Let them know they are loved.
“Souls which have fallen to the bottom of all possible misfortune, unhappy men lost in the lowest of those limbos at which no one any longer looks, the reproved of the law, feel the whole weight of this human society, so formidable for him who is without, so frightful for him who is beneath, resting upon their heads” – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.
Let us recognize and help these souls. Let us allay their fright. Let us relieve our neighbors from the burdens that would keep them homeless and in despair.
For more information visit:
- National Alliance to End Homelessness
- National Coalition for the Homeless
- National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
- The Urban Institute
- US Department of Housing and Urban Development: Homeless Assistance