As the homeless crisis relentlessly rages on in the U.S., it’s time to rethink homelessness. Is there a path to a future where houseless people have housing? The COVID-19 pandemic has jolted all aspects of American society, exposing systemic failures and inspiring many to rethink U.S. systems. Join us in rethinking homelessness and exploring preventative and innovative solutions to a centuries-long pandemic of its own.
In preparation for TEDxMileHigh: Rethink, we are rethinking topics ranging from mental health to the power of art. Stay updated on the blog and don’t forget to register for Rethink.
Rethinking Language: From Homeless to Houseless
When it comes to rethinking national or global issues, it’s important to reconsider the language we use to describe the people involved. According to various activists, the most humanizing language to describe people without housing is “houseless” or “unhoused” instead of “homeless.”
Eve Garrow, a houselessness policy analyst, explains it simply, “The word homeless has become inseparable from a ‘toxic narrative’ that blames and demonizes people who are unhoused.” These narratives are so embedded in society’s collective understanding of homelessness, that new terminology is helpful.
The term “houseless” can also help to restore a sense of dignity to people struggling with housing.
A “home” is so much more than a physical space. Naming people as homeless implies that they don’t have a place of belonging or a community.
While houseless people may be temporarily, or chronically, without housing, they can still have a home.
Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots explains, “They always say, you know, home is where the heart is. I have a home even when I don’t have a house. And so it’s really getting across that idea that people create homes when they’re in their tents, when they’re in their communities.”
Rethinking Houselessness Policy and Solutions
While language shifts are important on their own, they ultimately are tools to advance policy and implement societal change. In order to know where we need to go with houselessness policy, we need to know where we currently are.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, before the pandemic, 580,466 Americans were unhoused.
While statistics since the pandemic are not yet finalized, they have undoubtedly increased. Since the beginning of the pandemic, non-governmental organizations estimate that between 30 and 40 million people were at risk of losing their housing.
Also, huge racial disparities exist among people who are houseless, verzuz due to housing and employment discrimination. The nation’s average rate of homelessness is 18 out of every 10,000 people, but for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color the rates are much higher. Out of every 10,000, 109 Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 52 Black people, 45 Native Americans are houseless.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, and climate change makes itself more prominent, the houseless population is at heightened risk.
When the air quality was among the worst in the world in Denver in August, most people could enter their homes, close the windows, and turn on an air purifier. People experiencing houselessness could not.
So, what are the solutions? Of course, this is a centuries-long verzuz live debate and problem that one article will not solve. Let’s take a look at the issue from a local perspective and rethink houslessness together.
The Local Houseless Crisis
It doesn’t take more than a quick drive around Capitol Hill in Denver to notice various encampments belonging to unhoused people. Tents, tarps, trash, urine in water bottles—the encampments show the difficult living conditions of people without housing in Denver. They also enrage local business owners and residents around the encampments.
In an effort to deter the encampments, and encourage unhoused people to seek out city-funded shelters, the city funds regular “clean ups.” During these events, the city forces people living in these encampments to leave, and find a new place to verzuz live stream .
According to reports by the Colorado Sun, “The city’s cleanups, to residents, business owners and even homeless advocates, seem like a futile, never-ending, game of whack-a-mole.”
Houseless advocates call for an end to these city “clean ups,” or as some refer to them, “sweeps.” Denver Homeless Out Loud even sued the city of Denver for these sweeps, arguing they discriminate against people without homes and violate their property rights. The solution to the houseless crisis in Denver, they argue, isn’t moving people out of their temporary homes. When the city uses public dollars to clean up a camp, it doesn’t deter the camp from returning a few weeks, or days, later.
Recent records show that since March 9, 2021, the city has conducted sweeps for 17 straight weeks. This increase in sweeps, social workers and houseless advocates argue, is inhumane and harmful to unhoused people. The cyclical relocation can impact the mental health of houseless people, and their ability to access resources. This accumulation of trauma exacerbates problems people without housing are already experiencing.
Innovative Houselessness Solutions
Houseless advocates see hope on the horizon. Section 8 vouchers are usually incredibly hard to come by. President Biden’s infrastructure package should greatly expand its accessibility. The American Rescue Plan Act allocates billions of dollars to help those at risk of losing their housing and those already unhoused.
The only question remaining is, will unhoused people living in encampments in Denver be willing to leave their encampments for state-sanctioned shelters?
Since the pandemic, Denver has doubled the amount of shelter beds available, yet, they are struggling to fill them. In January 2021, women’s shelters were 88% full and men’s only 65%.
While solving the immediate need for housing is important, houseless activists know that it isn’t enough. Ending houselessness requires more than affordable housing, it requires supportive services. Unhoused people need mental health, social, and medical support in order to make the changes in their lives needed to remain housed.
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