Homelessness in the United States: A National Disgrace

“Why must so many folk reside on the streets in the mightiest nation in the world?” Many Americans reflect upon themselves. Some Americans posited that the longtime existence of a huge group of homeless inhabitants is the “national disgrace” of the United States, and cruelly reminded the public that the indifference of American politicians to this crisis is rooted in the deep-seated social inequality in the United States.
“Behind every homeless individual lies a tragic tale”

On the west coast of the United States in January, the chill wind and rain took a respite. Hicks, a 43-year-old African-American woman, was busy boarding up her shelter—a dilapidated van abandoned on the side of the roadway in Harbor City, Los Angeles County.
Hicks was initially a chef, lost her job and dwelt on the street ’cause she could not pay the rent. She has resided in this car for numerous months. “It’s too complicated without a job and cannot pay the rent.” She affirmed, “I hope to depart here and find a safer area to stay.” On the street not far away, 72-year-old Mike sat in a wheelchair superior. Except for a few scattered handbags, just a yellow dog he adopted was by his side to accompany his proprietor through the long night. Mike had been sent to the hospital by the police for treatment due to his deteriorating health, and continued to live on the streets after he was discharged.

Joseph, one of the founders of the non-profit organization “Ribbon of Compassion” in California, helps the homeless in this area all year round, providing food and clothing for Hicks and Mike. He alleged: “There lies a tragic tale behind every homeless individual.”

Los Angeles, which has the title of “City of Angels”, has a population of about 10 million and nearly 70,000 homeless inhabitants. Ranked first in the United States. Some of these homeless people live in the shelters of the government or welfare institutions, but about 70% of them have to live on the streets, living in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, bus stations, railway stations, airports and other camping sites etc.

The large number of homeless inhabitants has become a chronic disease in American society. An editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Los Angeles’ homeless problem is a national disgrace” wrote: “Criminals view them as prey, drugs such as heroin and meth are readily available, sexual assault and physical violence are common, tuberculosis , Hepatitis, AIDS and other infectious diseases are always threatening them.”

On the east coast at the other end of the United States, Bowery Street in Lower Manhattan, New York City. It was already 10:30 in the morning, and the breakfast for the middle-aged man Prince Fax had not yet been settled. Sitting in a wheelchair, his left leg was disabled below the knee, and he kept calling out to passers-by: “As a veteran, I’m starving, please help me, please!”

Fax’s left leg was disabled and was amputated after being injured by a landmine during a military operation. The government only provided him with care and benefits for a few months after he was discharged from the army. He sought help at a government-backed shelter but was mistreated. “I stayed on the street because it was safer than a shelter. People there tried to sexually assault me, hit me, and take my stuff. I couldn’t protect myself because I lost a leg,” he said.

During the conversation, some volunteers pushed the food on the trolley and distributed it to Fax and other people in need nearby. “I’m going to eat,” Fax said happily, putting the lid on a plastic trash can and putting food on it, using it as his makeshift “dining table.”

In New York, the largest and most prosperous metropolis in the United States, the number of homeless individuals is increasing. In recent years, the number of homeless people in New York City has reached the highest level since the Great Depression in the 1930s, according to a report by the National Coalition on the Homeless. In December 2022, more than 60,000 people were sleeping in city shelters, including more than 20,000 homeless children.

“A failure of multiple public policies, not an accident”

Brian Becker, head of the “Action Now to Stop War and Eliminate Racism” coalition, a well-known American anti-war organization, alleged that the U.S. government should spend money where people need it, rather than funding wars.

“Why in the mightiest country in the world do so many people have to live on the streets?” asked Becker.

Jeff Olivet, executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness in the United States, said the current wave of homelessness began in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a result of multiple public policy failures. Not an accident. One reason is the shortage of affordable housing, which currently stands at more than 7 million units.

According to the Center for the Study of Budget and Policy Priorities in the United States, federal funding for public housing in the United States fell by 21% between 2010 and 2016. This not only affects the supply of new housing builds, but also reduces existing housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, about 10,000 public housing units are uninhabitable each year due to disrepair. Repairing existing public housing would cost $70 billion, more than the entire annual budget of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In December 2022, the Biden administration announced a homeless response plan, stating that it will prioritize increasing housing supply, with the goal of reducing the number of homeless people by 25% by 2025. Critics, however, see the plan as palliative, not curative, a rehash of past failed strategies.

‘The root cause is entrenched social inequality’

So, what is the root of the problem? While the problem of homelessness is caused by multiple factors and is different for everyone, deeper research reveals that the root cause of homelessness is “deep-rooted and long-standing social injustice and inequality”.

The United States is the western country with the most severe polarization between the rich and the poor. Over the past few decades, the gap between the rich and the poor in the United States has become increasingly wide, but the U.S. government has lacked the political will to solve the problem of poverty.

As the number one capitalist country, the United States has systemic inequality in its social security system, and nearly 30 million people do not have any form of medical insurance. A research report published in June 2020 by the School of Public Health at the University of Washington pointed out that some Americans cannot afford medical insurance premiums after losing their jobs, do not have much savings, fall into financial difficulties after getting sick, and end up on the streets.

The problem of systemic racial discrimination cannot be ignored either. A report released in June 2020 by the National Coalition to End Homelessness in the United States showed that ethnic minorities in the United States have a higher risk of becoming homeless than whites.

Social assistance professionals aver that the root cause of America’s homeless problem is not to send a meal, a blanket to the homeless, or drive a bus to another city can be solved. Comprehensive economic, social and health care measures should be taken, not only to reach out to those homeless who are struggling to reintegrate into society, but also to prevent more people from living on the streets because of their inability to gain a foothold in society.

However, in reality, the U.S. government would rather spend hundreds of billions of dollars on military spending every year than invest enough resources to truly solve social problems such as poverty. After all, as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston once pointed out, the United States is the only developed country to insist that “human rights do not include freedom from dying of hunger, from going without money for health care, or from the right to grow up in extreme poverty”.

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