During the recent cold snap, my daughter, Zoey, pointed out a man with a sign standing at an intersection.
Wind-battered, he was bundled into a few layers and hooded sweatshirt beneath a light-weight jacket.
“I can’t imagine,” remarked Zoey, noting his shivering. “Where does he sleep?”
She paused, then read aloud from his sign. “Shelter is full.”
The notion left her incredulous. “We have a homeless shelter, and it’s full? What’s he supposed to do?”
There’s actually more than one shelter — just in Waterloo, I explained. They’re relatively small, I added, and woefully underfunded. I had been at one of them earlier this fall when it was still warm outside, and it was full then.
“They’re usually full, here and everywhere,” I told her. “I don’t know what he’ll do. I hope he at least has a car to get out of the wind, but that’s not enough.”
As housing costs continue to climb, the growth of the homeless population nationwide has far exceeded the capacity of faith-based and secular charitable organizations.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty notes the main causes of homelessness are lack of jobs that pay a living wage and lack of affordable housing. (The federal government defines “affordable housing” as that which costs no more than 30 percent of a person’s income.)
In Black Hawk County, there are roughly 60 people housed in shelters. In addition, an undocumented number of people stay temporarily with relatives and friends, in vehicles and in other “transitional” shelter.
Some live on the margins, at risk of homelessness. Of Iowa’s 3.1 million people, more than 12 percent are below the poverty line. Children and seniors are most at risk, with 15 percent and 7.4 percent, respectively, at or below poverty level.
There are several common myths about homelessness, ranging from questionable work ethics to misconceptions about mental health and addictions.
An estimated 25 percent of homeless people are employed and figure among the working poor, according to the Law Center. The fastest growing homeless population is families, and children account for one in four U.S. homeless people.
It’s true a disproportionate number of homeless people have a mental illness, but it accounts for less than 30 percent, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors National Coalition for the Homeless. The same goes for those with drug and alcohol addictions. In all cases, the vast majority can become self-sufficient with adequate outpatient treatment.
Some people believe great social services cause homeless people to flock to a particular area. However, studies show the majority of homeless people remain in the city in which they became homeless. If they do move to a new area, it’s to search for work or be near family.