The reality behind being homeless
A father in the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter plays with his son. Homelessness can be just a matter of circumstance.
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The most common misconception about homelessness is that it predominantly affects scruffy looking males, substance abusers, the mentally ill and those people too lazy to work. But one in four guests at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter is a child, two out of five guests are women, and nearly 40 percent are families.
For the majority of the homeless population in the U.S.—and in Maine—homelessness is a temporary circumstance caused by unemployment, an inability to pay rent and a lack of a functioning support system that allows them to maintain their housing. In times of economic recession, these factors are exacerbated by declines in public assistance, affordable housing and work opportunities, putting more families and individuals living in poverty in danger of becoming homeless.
The United States, the sixth richest country in the world according to data published by the International Monetary Fund in 2010, has the highest poverty rates and levels of inequality of any developed country.
The past 20 years in particular have seen a dramatic increase in homelessness across the country: the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, experience homelessness in a given year. This means that one percent of the American population experiences homelessness in a year—but the actual figures are likely to be even higher.
A person is officially considered homeless when they lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (according to the Stewart B. McKinney Act of 1994). These people are forced to seek night-time residency in shelters, institutions and private or public areas that are not designed for regular sleeping accommodations: cars, parks, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations are some examples. Studies that measure homelessness in an area often use a “period prevalence count” approach, which examines the number of people who are homeless over a given period of time. But an accurate representation of the homeless population remains elusive because the number of homeless people greatly exceeds the maximum capacity of shelters and transitional housing spaces in most cities.
Many reside in areas that are hidden and difficult for researchers to access. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, a country-wide study of formerly homeless people showed that 59.2 percent resided in vehicles, while another 24.6 percent lived in makeshift housing like tents, caves or boxcars.
Accurate surveys are also difficult due to the fact that in rural areas, like those in Maine, access to shelters and transitional housing services is limited, and people who lose their homes are more likely to live in substandard housing or to “couch surf” with relatives and friends. Young homeless people, sometimes called “unaccompanied youth,” who leave home or foster care for a variety of economic and domestic reasons, often live in cars, motels or double up with acquaintances. They are technically “homeless” but are not considered so by government and are therefore left out of censuses and often denied any official assistance.
“In Maine, it is particularly hard to be homeless in the winter due to the frigid temperatures and lack of public spaces to stay warm and meet basic needs,” Danielle Morse, director of Halcyon House, an emergency shelter for male and female youth ages 10-17, said. “People cannot survive sleeping in their car or in a park. There are very few places open 24/7 that they can visit if the shelter in their area is full.” According to a survey by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homeless, 14.47 percent of Maine’s population are expected to be living in poverty this year.
Diminishing work opportunities in the economic recession have increased the difficulty of making ends meet. Low-wage workers often work temporary, less secure jobs that offer little to no benefits. Without healthcare or a minimum wage that is high enough to afford even the most basic “affordable housing,” they are often just “an illness, an accident or a paycheck away from living on the streets,” the National Coalition for the Homeless reported.
The decline in the value and availability of public assistance in the economic downturn also takes a great toll on people living in poverty. “Very few services remain to help Maine’s most vulnerable populations, and this pushes the responsibility onto jails and shelters to support these residents,” Morse said.
Waterville and the surrounding areas already have a large population that relies on state assistance, and many families have recently been foreclosed on, forcing parents and children to separate in order to find safe places for all family members to stay. According to recent statistics, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter receives an average of 10 calls a day from people seeking help to avoid becoming homeless.
Ironically, the National Low Income Housing Coalition found in 2005 that “the federal government spent almost twice as much in housing-related tax expenditures and direct-housing assistance for households in the top income quintile than on housing subsidies for the lowest-income households.”
The lack of adequate federal subsidies for affordable housing and health care, as well as the difficulty of finding secure jobs in low-wage positions, has forced many people onto the streets across the country. The economic crisis has also spurred a recent “foreclosure crisis,” and many more families and individuals find themselves without adequate housing. “People become homeless that never could have imagined it would ever be them, and they have to turn to friends, family or even shelters looking for a warm place to stay,” Morse said.