Homelessness is a state of being without safe, adequate or permanent dwelling. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness just over half a million (553,742) people were reportedly experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United states in January of 2017. The numbers break down like this (https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-report/):

  • Approximately 17 per 10,000 individuals in the US are experiencing homelessness
  • These numbers increased slightly between 2016 and 2017 but have decreased over the past decade on whole.
  • Georgia and Massachusetts were the two states reporting the greatest decreases in 2017
  • California and New York were the two states reporting the greatest decrease in the same year.
  • The vast majority of the homeless population (almost 200,000) reported living in transitional housing or shelters.
  • 34% of homeless individuals and families live in places considered unsuitable for human habitation (abandoned buildings, under bridges, in cars, etc.)

On a personal Note

In 1994 while pursuing a Master’s degree in International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame I began volunteering for the Center for Homelessness in South Bend, Indiana. This Center was cutting edge at the time, leading the way in changing our view of homelessness and ways to successfully break the cycle. The Center received a significant grant from the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to pursue its exemplary work at providing homeless individuals with dignified care, work and life skill training, drug treatment, child care and classes on domestic violence prevention – all factors increasing the likelihood of homelessness. At the time, mothers with children represented the fastest growing population increase in the homeless community. After graduating, I stayed on at the Center as a full-time Case Manager which was the inspiration behind my decision to pursue my Masters in Social Work in 1997.

The Role of the Social Worker

Social Workers play a vital role in assisting the homeless as well as preventing homelessness before it occurs. These opportunities are found in working with the following populations of at risk individuals:

  • The Chronically Mentally Ill
  • Veterans
  • Low income families
  • Victims of Domestic Violence
  • Unaccompanied and at risk youth
  • People struggling with drug addiction

For this reason, those interested in tackling these complicated social problems will find it helpful to attend trainings in and obtain information in the areas of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Dual Diagnosis, Substance Abuse Training, and skills to recognize trauma or victimization in adults and children.

Trends to Keep an Eye On

Twenty years ago social workers and homeless advocates were making strides toward addressing the roots of the homelessness crisis by beginning to offer more services within shelters where possible. Today we see new trends emerging which build on these initial efforts by adding one key component – a home. Yes, this novel idea of giving homeless individual a home without strings attached arose in 2005 through a Utah based program called “Housing First” which aspired to end homelessness in Utah by 2015. Remarkably, by 2015 Gordon Walker, the Director of Utah’s Division of Community and Housing reported that Utah had in fact decreased their homeless population by 91%. Several news outlets such as The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/04/17/the-surprisingly-simple-way-utah-solved-chronic-homelessness-and-saved-millions/?utm_term=.41a9269612b8) , NBC News (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/utahs-strategy-homeless-give-them-homes-n352966) and the LA Times (http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-utah-housing-first-20150524-story.html) excitedly covered the story of success.

After initial claims of success circulated, a closer look revealed problems with the classifications and indicated that the claims were largely related to the chronically homeless which only make up about 22% of Utah’s homeless population. Advocates, social workers and substance abuse professional’s state that the problem is not solved in Utah however, there is little dispute that those who received stable homes through the Housing First Program did in fact avoid falling back into homelessness in greater numbers than others receiving other treatment methods. While more information is still needed to adequately house the half million homeless individuals in America, one thing is certain, Social Workers will be at the forefront of efforts to address the problem.