Homelessness: A Look at the Root Cause

At the latest count, homelessness in Los Angeles was up over 16%. According to Steve Lopez, writing in the Los Angeles Times onJune 16, the state count was twice as high. Disappointing news, especially since we’ve thrown $800 million at it and LA housed over 20,000 homeless last year. There’s plenty of frustration, explanation and blame to go around. And little in the way of suggestion as to how to get out of the hole we find ourselves in.

I’ve been watching this for almost fifty years, since I first returned from Vietnam and was counseling veterans. I found them sleeping on the streets or gathered in encampments of tents or lean-tos. (The National Veterans Foundation’s outreach van still visits those encampments, freeway overpasses, parking lots and streets, looking for veterans.)

Over the years explanations have ranged from the homeless were mentally ill, that they didn’t want shelter; to they were drug addicts, prostitutes, a criminal element. When feelings ran high, law enforcement was called in like ranch hands to “move the herd.” I’ve written about this on the NVF’s website and on the Huffington Post. Most of my focus has been on veterans who are homeless. In the 70s and 80s, 56% of the population were veterans, now it’s down to 20%. But our homeless population has grown to include families and students.

Nothing changes. The problem is still with us and it’s growing. Consider this: when HIV was a threat, a lot of effort and research went into identifying the cause. Not until that was determined could we start to work on a vaccine that would eradicate it. That hasn’t been the case with homelessness. We’re trying to solve the problem from the top down.

Think about it. The most we’ve done is allocate funds to try to catch up to the problem. We build, sometimes at great expense, shelters, dorms, single-room occupancy hotels and housing. As far as I know, no one has really addressed the root causes of homelessness. I think it’s time we faced the truth about how we got here.

In a capitalistic society where consumer consumption is the driver and corporations hold power, people on the lower end of the economic scale fare worse. It isn’t news that wealth is concentrated at the top, that the middle class is not only shrinking, it’s disappearing. I look around my neighborhood and see families just barely making it. It struck me that if I had not bought my modest home years ago, I’d be unable to afford to rent it now. I’d likely be, like many others, one paycheck away from being homeless.

Even when funds are allocated to address the problem, like the $800 million earmarked for it in LA, the benefit doesn’t trickle down far enough to effect substantive change. One or two nights in a shelter when it’s cold isn’t exactly solving anything, is it?

Building affordable housing can’t happen fast enough to keep up with the need. We simply don’t have enough housing units. Other factors (like Airbnb) make it profitable for landlords to reclaim a property  that would have been part of our housing stock before. Rising rental value dries up housing that might have been available to HUD’s Section 8 families, putting them first in their cars, then on the streets.

Veterans are in a particular pinch. Many of them depend on modest disability payments to bridge the gap. I don’t have to tell you what happens to them when the government shuts down, or benefit payments don’t arrive on time. Just so you know, very few veterans are rated 100% disabled. Most disabled vets are rated on the low end of the scale, so rising rents quickly outstrip their resources. Even vets who are 100% disabled have difficulty finding and keeping housing.

Homeless encampments provide only the most rudimentary shelter and it’s temporary at best, what with our move-the-herd policy. I understand why they’re not wanted anywhere. For one thing, sanitation is a huge problem and expense. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re not ultimately paying for all of this.

Calling it our “homeless problem” doesn’t reflect the truth: this is a multi-faceted complex of issues that includes not just housing, but economic opportunity, education and access to health care, physical and mental. Addressing the root causes is not a quick fix, but it might be more effective in the long-term.

We need to take a hard look in the mirror and decide if the kind of society we see in our cities is what we want to build. I think not. And then we need to acknowledge the true cost of not addressing the problem.

If you know a veteran who needs help, here’s our crisis and information hotline: 888.777.4443.

Shad Meshad

As a U.S. Army Medical Service Officer in Vietnam in 1970, Shad Meshad began pioneering treatment techniques for what would later become known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He is the founder of the National Veterans Foundation and founder and co-author of the VA’s Vet Center Program.

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