The most common cause of homelessness in the US is a lack of affordable housing units.  With the national minimum wage remaining well below the rate of inflation, and the gentrification of many formerly low-income areas, there is now a crisis in low-income housing.  With 40 million Americans living below the poverty line and up to 100 million living just above it, often it is the cost of housing that is the gateway into homelessness.

Here are some statistics.  The poverty line for a family of four is $25,100 per year.  A worker would need to earn $12 an hour to reach that level.  The federal minimum wage is $7.25 — that is $4.75 less than the minimum amount needed to support a family.  A renter needs to earn $21 an hour to support a two-bedroom home. Upwards of 11 million families now spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing alone.  It is considered healthy to spend 30 percent. Only 25 percent of those eligible for federal housing assistance actually receive help, due to a lack of funding.

The lack of affordable housing has been a trend since the Reagan administration in the 1980’s.  As Peter Dreier notes,

“in the 1980s the proportion of the eligible poor who received federal housing subsidies declined. In 1970 there were 300,000 more low-cost rental units (6.5 million) than low-income renter households (6.2 million). By 1985 the number of low-cost units had fallen to 5.6 million, and the number of low-income renter households had grown to 8.9 million, a disparity of 3.3 million units.”

Even through the decades since, increasing federal affordable housing has never been seen as a priority by politicians.  The national vacancy rate in 2014 fell to 7.6 percent – the lowest it has been in 20 years. Rates have increased at double the rate of inflation since 2013 — 3.2 percent to 1.6 percent inflation.  

When people are forced to spend upwards of 50 percent of their income on housing alone, it forces them to cut back on necessities such as food and medicine.  Being just a paycheck or two away from homelessness, often all it takes is an injury or illness to thrust these people over the edge.

Are you ready for the most ironic part of this whole issue?  Taxpayers pay approximately $40,000 per homeless person on the streets each year — through hospital visits, jail and court fees, shelters and programs, and more.  It is estimated to cost less than a third of this amount to provide housing for the homeless people who seek it. Approximately $10,000 per person. Cost studies all across the nation have seen this trend in action. (See here.)  If compassion is not the incentive for your family, friends or politicians, perhaps economic interest will be.  

How can we help with the affordable housing crisis?  The key to ending homelessness is housing, but there is not enough of it.  Low-income housing and transitional housing are seen by scholars and the homeless population alike as the most direct way to eliminating homelessness.  Advocate on a governmental level to prioritize low-income housing, more housing for people with disabilities, more employment opportunities and more assisted-living centers.  We need 7 million more low-income units to prevent people from spending more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing alone. In the wealthiest country on Earth, is it not a basic human right to afford housing for oneself and one’s family?