Housing IS Healthcare
By Zeke Sundstrom, age 11
Poor physical and mental health is both a cause and an effect of houselessness. Even before the pandemic worsened the situation, the number of chronically unhoused people—those who have been without housing for over a year—rose by 15% between 2019 and 2020.
According to the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council (NHHC), unhoused people are three to six times more likely to become ill than housed people, and their life expectancy is on average 12 years lower than the general U.S. population. Around 30 to 35% of unhoused people are also suffering from mental illnesses, according to Homeless Hub.
An injury or illness can start out as a health condition but quickly affect employment. A worker suffering from a physical or mental condition might have problems due to missing too much time from work or being unable to perform needed tasks. Of course, if someone misses a lot of time at their job and can’t do it well, they are at risk of getting fired.
“The loss of employment due to poor health then becomes a vicious cycle,” explains the NHHC. “Without funds to pay for healthcare—such as treatment, medications and surgery—one cannot heal to work again, and if one remains ill, it is difficult to regain employment.” According to the council, half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States are caused by health problems.
Houselessness can both intensify existing problems and create more. Even minor issues, such as cuts or common colds, easily develop into larger problems, such as infections or pneumonia.
Since healthcare and houselessness are so closely connected, helping to solve one problem could positively impact the other. Housing is ultimately a form of medicine for unhoused people. A house reduces the chances of becoming unwell and aids recovery from medical treatment.
The National Coalition for the Homeless says that providing universal health coverage (healthcare for everyone, regardless of ability to pay) is “essential in the fight to end homelessness.” There are currently no U.S. states which have a universal healthcare program.
Unhoused Climate Emergency
By Aya Bajwa, age 11
Climate change is creating extreme weather conditions like hurricanes, heat waves, floods, tornadoes and wildfires that disproportionately affect unhoused people and cause houselessness, too. Without shelter to protect themselves, unhoused people are at great risk of illness, injury and even death.
Rising temperatures can lead to an increased chance of illness or death for unhoused people due to heat exhaustion and dehydration. A study conducted by the University of California, San Diego on houselessness and emergency department visits found that there was an increase in the number of unhoused people visiting emergency rooms during periods of extreme temperatures. A lack of shelter and access to clean water can lead to life-threatening health issues.
“Climate change is also a housing crisis,” said Andreanecia Morris, executive director of the housing advocacy nonprofit Housing NOLA, to Mother Jones. Severe weather caused by climate change is one of the leading causes of houselessness around the world. Natural disasters like hurricanes can destroy entire homes and even communities. According to the Louisiana Illuminator, in 2020 thousands of people became unhoused in Lake Charles, La., after Hurricane Laura destroyed their homes.
Property owners have been known to increase rent prices to cover the cost of repairs, which ultimately causes financially disadvantaged tenants to be evicted. These events tend to disproportionately affect non-white communities the most. “This power imbalance that exists between renters and landlords,” explained Sarah Saadian, vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, to Mother Jones, “allows them to turn tragedies into money in their pockets.” Often these renters cannot find other housing options, forcing them to live on the streets.
Rising sea levels are also impacting the availability of affordable housing, and the people who are most affected by this are often economically poor, non-white communities. In an interview with NPR, Priya Jayachandran, president of the National Housing Trust, explained that the impact sea levels have on housing is often overlooked because it will play out over decades. Jayachandran suggests that the solution is to build more affordable housing on higher ground.
Affordable Housing Issues Still Plague U.S. States
By Ava Vidal, age 11
One of the leading causes of houselessness is the lack of affordable housing. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines an “affordable dwelling” as a household that costs 30% or less of its income. However, a recent study from Harvard University found that 38.1 million households spend more than one-third of their income on housing.
Many cities around the United States have been arresting and fining the homeless for resting, sleeping or sitting in public spaces. In San Diego, one unhoused man was fined more than $1,000 for spitting on a public sidewalk while brushing his teeth. In some places, public restrooms are not accessible overnight, but public urination is prohibited.
“The crisis looms largest in California, where, instead of investing in permanent affordable housing and other necessary resources, local and state governments have deployed tactics to rid communities of the visible presence of unhoused people,” says Nazish Dholakia, senior writer for Vera Institute of Justice and former leader of media and communications in Asia at Human Rights Watch.
In the United States, only 37 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households, and a vast majority of those struggling are from non-white communities. “This housing crisis is felt most intensely in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities,” explains Javier Lopez, a former official at New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “which have experienced a well-documented history of racial discrimination in securing, stabilizing, and maintaining quality housing.”
However, it doesn’t need to be this way. Resources could be shifted away from harassing, fining and jailing unhoused people and invested in real solutions, like Housing First approaches. This involves pairing people with long-term housing without barriers or conditions and is the first step in bringing many out of houselessness for good.
Biden’s Build Back Better Act allocated $15 billion to help build or preserve more than 150,000 rental homes for lower-income families, around $65 billion to preserve and rebuild public housing, and around $24 billion for housing choice vouchers, which would help an estimated 300,000 low-income households. However, the plan failed to pass the Senate in December 2021. It is possible that some parts of the act could still pass. “I’m confident we can get pieces, big chunks of the Build Back Better law signed into law,” the president said at a press conference in January.
How Has the Pandemic Made Houselessness Worse
By Maia Cort, age 11
Houselessness in the United States has become increasingly worse since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A report published in August 2021 by the Congressional Research Service found that the national unemployment rate had reached 14.8%, a record number. Without a steady income, scores of people have been unable to pay their rent and faced eviction from their homes.
Many of those living in shelters moved back onto the streets for fear of contracting the virus in crowded buildings. Others had no choice, as shelters were forced to limit the number of individuals they could house. For the first time since records began, the number of people living unsheltered in the United States exceeded the number of those who were sheltered in 2020.
In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an eviction moratorium which temporarily halted evictions to prevent the unhoused population from growing even further. However, this federal order ended in August 2021. The Biden administration enacted the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) in March 2021, which aimed to assist with the health and economic crises.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as of October 2021, one in five renters in the United States were behind on rental payments, and 10 million households were behind on mortgage payments. The ARPA included several provisions and aimed to help those facing eviction or who were made unhoused. These included allocating over $21.5 billion in emergency rental assistance and providing $5 billion for unhoused assistance and supportive services.
Gene Sperling, a Biden adviser, explained that the rental assistance program was essential as evictions can derail families for years. “Preventing deeper harms is going to pay serious benefits, not just in terms of the longer-term economy but also basic human well-being and dignity,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
In December, Connecticut received federal approval to spend $7.2 million of their COVID-19 relief fund to help schools in identifying and assisting unhoused students and ensure that they can still attend school. But as the plan’s funding rapidly depletes, the future of such programs remains unknown.
An interview with Margaret Middleton, the chief executive officer at Columbus House in Connecticut, which provides shelter for the unhoused and works to understand and overcome the factors that create houselessness.
Zeke: Mentally and physically ill people are more likely to end up unhoused. Do you believe that universal healthcare could improve this situation?
Margaret: Universal healthcare would definitely help to end homelessness. Medical care for serious medical issues often costs a huge amount of money. When people can’t afford medical care, they may end up without enough money to pay for a home.
Maia: What have people been doing to keep shelters safe during COVID? Do people have to be vaccinated to stay in shelters?
Margaret: Homeless shelters like Columbus House have kept people safe from COVID in hotel rooms instead of in big rooms full of beds. People do not have to be vaccinated to be in a shelter because we always want people to be able to come inside if they want to.
Maia: Have you seen an increase in the local unhoused population due to evictions?
Margaret: We have seen an increase in the number of people calling 211 asking for help with housing, and we have seen a rising number of evictions, but we don’t know yet if one causes the other.
Maia: What do you think would be a good solution to lower the amount of people who are getting evicted?
Connecticut will provide everyone facing eviction a lawyer in court starting this year. This will help many people avoid eviction. Another solution would be to provide more people with help in paying their rent.
Aya: Do you believe that climate change is causing more people to become unhoused? If so, why?
Margaret: I have not seen any evidence that climate change is directly causing more people to become unhoused in our community. However, climate change is making it harder for people who are unhoused to survive outside because storms are stronger and weather patterns are more extreme.
Aya: What do you believe could improve this situation?
Margaret: Our government has to prioritize providing safe, affordable housing to all citizens.
Ava: What do you think could be done to help unhoused people from being unfairly criminalized?
Margaret: The city of New Haven is starting a non-police crisis response team this year. A group of social workers and mental health professionals will respond to emergency calls that don’t involve violence or threats of violence. This should help people without homes avoid some unfair criminalization.
Ava: Do you think that the problem with the lack of affordable homes could be solved by the government changing some of its regulations?
Margaret: The only thing that will solve homelessness is if the government commits to providing a safe and affordable home to everyone who needs one. The only way our government will make that commitment is if we tell the people we elect that we want everyone to have a safe and affordable home.