Canvas a few people about our local homeless population and you may hear comments like, “The people on our streets choose to be homeless.” Or, “Those scary meth addicts aren’t even from here.” These gross categorizations create a schism between “us” and “them” and obscure an important truth: The homelessness that we witness on the streets of Lawrence is a recent social problem.
On Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider altering the special use permit to allow expansion of the Lawrence Community Shelter (LCS) from 33 to 82 permitted sleeping places, thus ensuring the facility meets all necessary safety/fire codes. The sleeping spaces are not glamorous. They are mat spaces on the floor that will allow LCS to accommodate the increased demand for shelter that is the result of the June 1 closure of the Salvation Army site.
Homelessness affects more than 2.1 million American adults and 1.3 million children each year. Most at risk of becoming homeless are the very poor, those at lower than 50 percent of the poverty line. As many as one of every 12 poor families experience homelessness each year. Personal vulnerabilities increase the odds of living in poverty and subsequent homelessness. Mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, physical illness or disabilities that make it difficult to work are all major risk factors.
About 25 percent of adults who experience homelessness spent some of their childhood in foster care. Veterans make up about a quarter of the homeless population even though they only comprise 11 percent of the total population. The people helped by our local shelter — 75 percent of them are Douglas County residents — mirror fairly well the national statistics although about half of our local homeless population are comprised of families and include children from every Lawrence school.
Homelessness is shocking in a country as wealthy as ours and it makes sense that many people understand the problem in terms of individual failings or choice rather than an indication of a societal shift over which individuals have little or no control. However, widespread homelessness in its current form dates back only to about 1979, suggesting that larger forces are at work.
The globalization of the last 30 years has seen well-paying industrial or manufacturing jobs replaced with lower-paying service sector jobs that tend to lack benefits such as health care. Consequently, those at the middle or lower end of the income scale have seen their standards of living decrease at the same time that we have reduced the safety net for those falling on hard times either through job loss or disability.
We are in the middle of a recession, experiencing the highest rates of unemployment in decades. While local policy and services cannot address the global changes taking place (our local shelter workers are more akin to field medics providing life-saving triage services), LCS and other support facilities are essential.
LCS hosts a night shelter as well as a drop-in day shelter that offers respite from excessive heat and cold, daily living services (a place to use the phone or store a few items) and support for those who are grappling with mental illness or substance abuse. Case managers help people break the cycle of homelessness with efforts ranging from back to work programs to application support for public housing.
Prior to absorbing the overflow from the Salvation Army, LCS worked with over 50 people a day and provided more than 18,000 services per year. The largest increase they have seen over the last few months is in the number of families seeking shelter and support, 5 percent of whom are under the age of 19.
Chronic homelessness is our new reality. If you recognize it is a challenge not a choice, uphold the shelter’s efforts to help people find homes and jobs and advance measures that will make housing and health care more affordable.
The way we treat our neighbors who lack a home is a reflection of who we are as a community. We can provide the safety nets that are in short supply, once again demonstrating that we are a community that takes care of each other.
— Simran Sethi is the Lacy C. Haynes Visiting Professional Chair in the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas University. Mark Holter is an associate professor in the KU School of Social Welfare.