Homelessness shapes lives, and our society’s engagement with those
affected by housing insecurity shapes homelessness as a social institution. A lack of recognition for homelessness’s ubiquity, its everyday manifestations, and its stigmatization prevents adequate and just responses to the struggles people experiencing homelessness face. This issue will continue to persist until proactive efforts are made to incorporate people experiencing homelessness into activism.
In its annual report on the state of homelessness, the United States Department of Homelessness and Urban Development, or HUD, found that in 2020, 580,466 people experienced homelessness on a given night. Among these people experiencing homelessness, a disproportionate number identify as BIPOC or LGBT+; LGBT youth, for example, are 120% more likely to experience homelessness compared to the general population. Moreover, according to a statistic from University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, one in ten young adults experience homelessness in any one year. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent findings emerged in January of 2020, meaning that they fail to account for increases in homelessness stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic debilitated communities by increasing unemployment and decreasing accessibility to shared community resources. Such debilitation has left already vulnerable communities struggling to find financial and social resources necessary for their rehabilitation.
Among people experiencing homelessness, 110,528 experience chronic homelessness. Chronic homelessness, or homelessness experienced by people over long periods of time as they struggle with financial or social adversity, thus represents nearly one quarter of all individuals who experience homelessness in a given year. The same report suggests that nearly 4 in 10 people who experience homelessness in the United States sleep in places not fit for human habitation, including on benches, sidewalks, or abandoned buildings. Yet the other 61% of people experiencing homelessness face adversity as well—adversity often unrecognized by the general population.
But how is homelessness so ubiquitous yet seldom observed? Our suggest the problems homelessness presents to individuals experiencing it, but fail to account for the thousands of people who experience hidden homelessness. Except their experiences with homelessness often remain unacknowledged because of a lack of visibility for their struggles. People who couch surf to find a place to sleep, those who rely on peers’ futons for rest, and those who struggle through their homelessness in silence aren’t included in our view of housing insecurity.
The concept of hidden homelessness is an obscure one, but it is one that is immediately pressing. Until people experiencing homelessness are recognized and their problems addressed by our society, homelessness will continue to approach epidemic proportions. In other words, people experiencing homelessness need not appear as you might expect to be struggling with the effects of housing insecurity. Many people experiencing homelessness blend in, but their experiences still matter. Our society remains at best indifferent to homelessness, even though some of the people with whom you may interact have experienced, are currently experiencing, or will experience homelessness sometime in their lives.
Many fail to view these individuals experiencing homelessness as members of their communities, even though 70-80% of these persons live hail from the communities local communities as their more financially secure peers. People experiencing homelessness are just as much part of our communities as those not experiencing homelessness, and both deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. An improved understanding of hidden homelessness makes clear time and time again that people experiencing housing insecurity are just that: people. Moreover, to establish communities that are suitable for everyone, we must recognize homeless populations, their vulnerability, and the consequences of our oversight.
Hidden homelessness describes a degree of invisibility that can harm people experiencing housing insecurity by preventing proper policy decisions and hindering positive legal outcomes. Many local laws that prohibit sleeping on park benches and in public spaces criminalize homelessness, such that individuals who are experiencing homelessness face legal adversity for fulfilling actions necessary to life. Such punishment is cruel and unusual, yet because society still stereotypes people experiencing homelessness as indolent or lacking proper decision-making skills, ineffective legal and policy decisions are carried out, resulting in increased adversity among people experiencing homelessness.
This dilemma need not be the case, however. Breaktime, an organization seeking to end young adult homelessness via a model of supported transitional employment, recognizes the power and potential in all young people. Recognizing the importance of humanity and person-first policy decisions, Breaktime seeks to end the stigma against people experiencing homelessness and cultivate a culture of pragmatic support for people experiencing housing insecurity.
Breaktime’s person-first approach manifests itself in different ways, but all tie back to its human and innovative core values. Whether it be advocating person-first language in educational settings or working directly with associates to empower them through mental, social, and financial instability, our social enterprise revolves around human beings. In this way, we are able to distribute a model that is conducive to productive and effective change.
Breaktime’s person-first values are important, but they function only if their human sentiment is shared among a vast portion of the population. This November, with countless of its partner organizations and millions all across the country, Breaktime recognizes National Youth Homelessness Awareness Month, a month dedicated to raising awareness for the struggles faced by youth experiencing homelessness across the country. As part of its NHYA month programming, Breaktime is hosting several community events at which we hope to see you. With your participation, we can create a culture more accepting and empathetic toward people experiencing homelessness in our communities.
This month, we implore our audiences and their communities to register the humanity that exists in all individuals, regardless of race, identity, housing status, or otherwise. As a society composed of individuals from different backgrounds, we all benefit from more kindness and warmth.
This November, challenge yourself to grow, to empower, to uplift, to change, to celebrate, to observe, and to be aware. Challenge yourself and work toward breaking the cycle of youth homelessness. This November, challenge yourself to make a difference.
This blog piece was written by Jacob Landau, Cross Functional Intern