About a month ago, I was walking the streets of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at night on my way home after a late evening of studying at Seattle University School of Law, where I am a first-year student. I noticed a man just off the sidewalk had knocked over a construction sign. He was curled up tightly, asleep, in an effort to keep the windy, chilly Seattle weather from interrupting what I am sure would only be a few hours of sleep. I stopped to watch him for just a moment because my heart ached.
I know what it’s like to not have a bed and needing to make do with whatever you have immediately available. I served four years in the reserves and four years active duty as an artillery officer in the Army. I was stationed all over the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, and participated in countless combat exercises and training cycles. As a veteran, I am all too aware of what it means to live with only the things you can carry and sleeping anywhere you can find a relatively safe, flat surface. In addition, I imagine this man would be awakened and ordered to move when someone less sympathetic discovered and reported him. This unhoused man and I share the experience of fighting for survival. However, I chose the experience. The man, who now burns in my memory, likely did not.
I grew up in a picturesque suburban, conservative, largely white, Southern, American community. Though I do not remember anyone explicitly saying so, homelessness was viewed largely as a personal choice or a failure. It was not until I went to college that I learned how dangerously wrong my childhood influences were.
According to an analysis written by the Economic Roundtable for Homelessness in Los Angeles, illness, problematic substance use, mental-health issues and medical/physical disability were cited in 30% of individuals surveyed (“Escape Routes Meta-Analysis of Homelessness in Los Angeles County“). Additional reasons cited were conflicts with family, no social support, death or illness of a family member and domestic abuse. Moreover, African-American men were 13 times more likely to experience homelessness than white Americans. Of the population analyzed, 55% of homeless women experienced intimate partner violence before becoming unhoused. In large part, homelessness is not a solitary issue but rather a symptom of a compounded and broken socioeconomic system.
Though people disagree on the solution, no one can argue about the scope and magnitude of the problem. Almost every major city in America has tent cities under overpasses and in every spare area the unhoused can find. Many cities have responded by criminalizing behaviors typical of homelessness, so the unhoused end up in the criminal justice system. A lot of strict conservative family friends I have from childhood, sadly, see this as somewhat of a solution. These same people argue for less social-welfare programs because they believe the cost outweighs the benefits.
However, “a chronically homeless person costs the taxpayer an average of $35,578 per year. Costs on average are reduced by 49.5% when they are placed in supportive housing,” according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Regardless of your opinions on unhoused individuals, the numbers consistently show investment in stable housing and social programs can save American taxpayers a significant amount of money.
The current president constantly talks of making America great again. By investing in stable housing and robust social programs, so that no American citizen has to fight for survival out of necessity, I believe this country can pursue humane solutions to systemic issues and begin progressing toward a brighter future for everyone.