It’s hard to pin down an exact number of how many people are currently homeless in the US. Much of this problem stems from the many different definitions of homelessness. For example, many government statistics come from shelters and food kitchens that report how many people they served during a given time period. But this doesn’t count the folks who were turned away, are living in temporary housing like weekly rate hotels, tent cities, or have simply stopped looking for aid.
No one is traveling the streets of the US counting the homeless. No one is doing surveys of storm tunnels in Las Vegas to find out how many people are living down there. No one is canvassing short term hotels to see how many folks there are housing their families there because there is no other option. And there is no effort to find out how many people are living with family or friends because there is no other choice.
So we have no real estimate of the total number of homeless.
But what we do see is an effort to reduce the number of homeless, or more accurately, the visibility of the homeless. Many communities, from major metro areas to small towns, have enacted ordinances to reduce the number of homeless that are seen in the streets or remove them entirely. This doesn’t solve homelessness, but instead, sweeps it under the rug.
So some people have taken the ball, and have made efforts to actually solve the problem. One of these folks is Reverend Steve Brigham in Lakewood, NJ. He found that the homeless in Lakewood were being driven off the city streets and were trying to find places to live. Brigham connected with attorney Jeff Wild, and was able to secure public lands for a “tent city” for these folks to call home. They have built small shanties, many of them well-kept, painted, and decorated – their homes. Before last winter, some more permanent structures were erected to give dwellers a warm place to spend the night and even worship. A small chapel was one of the buildings. As Brigham puts it “We didn’t lose anyone last year, and nobody got sick”. Last year, when a blizzard came into the area, nearly all of the shelters were flattened, but residents stayed safe and warm in those huts. The huts were constructed with donations from the community and were built by a team of volunteers from a local church.
The city took more action, and though they could not evict the residents of the tent city, they did come in and demolish the constructed buildings, including the chapel.
So, this year, with winter approaching, these folks no longer have a place to go.
Now, if you look at the pictures in the link, you’ll find that this isn’t a site with a massive visual presence. It’s not in your face, it’s not an eyesore. But for far too many, the problem of homelessness is solved not by finding a way to get a good roof over these people’s heads, but by pushing them farther away so they can’t be seen, ever.
Some of these folks have had problems with the law or substance abuse. But some are just folks whose jobs and money ran out, and have no other place to go. They don’t want to be there, they want to work, they want to have a home of their own. This tent city is a last resort. And they do the best they can.
Folks like Mark Horvath are trying to bring these stories to light. A little over a year ago, Mark created InvisiblePeople.tv, a site where he chronicles the plight of the homeless in video. He lets them tell their story and posts it for the world to see. From a man living under the streets of Las Vegas to a family of seven that is living in a one-room weekly rate motel with two beds, he has put in video the stories of people in the US who want nothing more than a job and a good roof over their heads.
People like Mark Horvath and Steve Brigham are doing what they can, but there are some strong forces working against them. Cities don’t want to be associated with “tent cities” and the homeless. There is a fear that the presence of the homeless will result in an increase in crime, a decrease in business, and a diminished perception about the quality of life in a community. So the result is that cities try to shove the whole problem under a rug.
What they should be doing, instead, is investing in ways to get these people out of homelessness, or at a minimum, get the hell out of the way. Reverend Brigham was able to organize volunteers to build shelters – he obviously has tapped into a segment of the community that cares about their fellow humans. Tearing down their work, regardless of the reason, is the wrong idea. A better solution would have been to work with them to fix any permitting problems and move forward. This would help lighten the load of local shelters, allowing them to serve more people with the same funds. By eliminating the shelters they constructed, these folks will have to look in town for some other form of shelter when the weather gets cold again. Instead of allowing them to be more self-sufficient, the town has created a situation where they must rely on the town’s assistance just to survive.
The faces of homelessness are varied and many. They are parents and kids, couples and individuals. Rather than try to ignore them, we should be working to fix the problems – and find a path for these folks to get back on their feet. But we certainly should not be actively working to make that path more difficult.