Over the years, homelessness has come to be increasingly narrowly viewed, and sometimes defined. But if we take a step back, it’s clear that homelessness is really nothing more or less than an extreme form of poverty. It’s a step in a continuum of vulnerability.
People become homeless for reasons ranging from eviction, to job loss, to health crises, to domestic violence, to substance addiction. These are some of the immediate, precipitating events that can send a person or a family or a youth into the streets or shelters, or to someone’s couch or floor. But underlying all of these is a lack of resources to weather these events.
The ongoing foreclosure and unemployment crises make these connections clearer than ever. Formerly middle class people are finding themselves seeking help from food banks and shelters where they were once donors or volunteers. More people than ever are on food stamps (now known as the SNAP program), one of the few remaining entitlement programs. From 2010 to 2011, the number of people living doubled up due to economic need rose by over 9%.
For us as advocates, working on homelessness means working on ending and preventing it. That means we work on housing, income, education, health care, domestic violence. We work on addressing the causes that make people homeless in the first place. We also work on preventing further harm to people who are already homeless—harm that makes it even harder to end their homelessness. We advocate to make sure homeless children have access to school, and that people aren’t criminally punished simply because they have nowhere to live except for public places.
We view homelessness as a human rights issue, and it’s a basic human rights principle that rights are interdependent. It’s hard—or even impossible—to go to school, to work, to vote, to keep a family together, if you don’t have food to eat, health care for body and mind, or a home to live in. Ending and preventing homelessness in America is a matter of basic social justice.