Homelessness as a Dying Canary in Our Coal Mine

September 29, 2015

Photo by: Christina Berube, BAHS

From the Los Angeles Almanac (on line):

According to the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, an estimated 254,000 men, women and children experience homelessness in Los Angeles County during some part of the year and approximately 82,000 people are homeless on any given night.  Unaccompanied youth, especially in the Hollywood area, are estimated to make up from 4,800 to 10,000 of these.

One quarter of a million people.  In one relatively small part of this country.  Almost one quarter of the population of our entire state.  I cannot internalize this scale in a way that is clear.

Miners used to bring canaries in cages with them down into the shafts.  Before there was technology able to detect dangerous gases (think carbon monoxide detectors in our homes now), the men would have these little birds with them for protection as they went deeper into the earth.  If they ended up in places where there was a buildup of gas that would eventually be fatal, the little, yellow birds would go feet up before there was a massive effect on the men, and the men could flee to safety.

A quarter of a million people just in Los Angeles County.  In the United States, population 319 million, on any given night in January of 2013 there were 610,042 people experiencing homelessness according to HUD’s Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress.  On any given night.  A number of human beings almost equaling two-thirds of our entire state population was homeless on any given night in January of 2013. 

Compiling accurate data about measuring homelessness is challenging.  In addition to people staying in beds in shelters or in transitional housing, there are additional others on a large scale who are either living outside or moving from one unstable situation to another.  That said, recent estimates on how many Americans may experience homelessness in a year range from 1.4 million to 3.5 million (from figures cited in publications by the National Coalition for the Homeless).  I cannot grasp these numbers clearly—they are staggeringly large, beyond a total that makes sense to me.  Contrast these astonishing figures with the number of homeless in Ireland.  According to the publication Focus Ireland, based on the 2011 census of 4.5 million Irish citizens, only 3,808 were considered as “rough sleepers” (homeless).   If my math is right, that’s about 8 one hundredths of 1 percent of the Irish population.  In the US, taking 2.4 million as an average point between the spread of the estimate, it works out to almost 8 percent, a figure 89 times greater than that for Ireland.

Advocates in Ireland are pressing for the same sort of initiatives that homeless advocates in this country are arguing for, especially more affordable housing.  So that measure is common to both our countries—why the huge disparity between the percentages of homeless?  I am no expert, but I will speculate that it has to do with values and perspective.  We of this country seem to have largely forgotten how to take care of each other.  We have put a high premium on individual worth and rights, frequently at the expense of the bigger village.  We like to lay claim to bootstraps while implying that those people living in poverty are doing so through their own fault.  We of the majority, in general, are a little too self-congratulatory.

That majority is being threatened by a growing diversity in this country.  I’m struck by all the recently documented instances of racial violence, many driven by instances of violent acts by law enforcement.  The appearance of much of the strife is racial, but underneath and within is also the reality of poverty. 

All the data describing seriously high numbers of homeless in this country are accompanied by similarly high numbers for hunger.  Statistics for violence demonstrate that we’re sadly ahead of our international peers.  In addition to the suffering experienced by those whom the data directly represents, any serious degree of national ill health threatens to erode our country as a whole.  I think we’re looking at a canary that is dying.  Are we willing to face facts and make better decisions?