Homelessness is defined as living in housing that is below the minimum standard or lacks secure tenure. People can be categorised as homeless if they are living on the streets, moving between temporary shelters, including houses of friends, family and emergency accommodation, living in private boarding houses without a private bathroom or security of tenure. There are an estimate of about 150 million homeless people worldwide. The most homeless city in the world is Manila, Philippines with 4.5 million homeless people, with 70,000 of them being children. Homelessness is a large problem across all of Philippines with one-fourth of the overall population living in poverty. Finland is one of the rare countries in the world which has very few homeless people.
In 2007, the government decided to adopt a new approach to dealing with homelessness. ‘Housing First’ was launched and it followed the principle of providing each homeless person with permanent housing with no string attached, accompanied by individually tailored health and support services. In 1987, there were more than 18,000 homeless people in Helsinki. In 2017, there was about 6,600 people classified as without a home. Today, it has almost eradicated homelessness and one could hardly find any homeless person in Helsinki.
Causes of Homelessness
More often than not, homelessness is not a choice. It is a result of structural problems. Homeless people are homeless due to circumstance beyond their control.
Lack of Affordable Housing
Sky-high property prices and a yawning wealth gap have helped fuel a surge in homelessness globally. By every measure, the housing affordability gap; the gap between incomes and housing costs, has grown dramatically wider over the past three decades. Many low-income families and individuals are not earning enough to afford housing with their meagre incomes. Many of them are struggling just to make ends meet and essentials like food expenses are their priorities.
Many people in Hong Hong are not able to afford a house with property prices up 200 percent in the past decade. A bed in a tiny, windowless shared apartment cost around HK$2000 per month so many choose to live rough on the streets. Some others live in 16-square-foot cages which cost around HK$1470 for rental. Smaller space means smaller initial payments but if calculating the cost per square foot, these cages are more expensive than most posh apartments in Hong Kong.
In Los Angeles, homeless population has swelled by 12% over the past years as housing is very expensive in America’s second-largest city, pushing more people into poverty. The topography of Los Angeles makes it more costly to build a house than in other places as it is difficult to expand into the ocean. Limited land and other multiple demands raise land prices. The labour cost is more expensive in Los Angeles than other cities in California. Many people today are living in tents, recreational vehicles and makeshift shelters and this has become a fact of life in neighbourhoods far and wide in Los Angeles. People in other states face similar problems of expensive housings and they simply do not make enough to afford an apartment without any long-term assistance.
The cost of housing in Canada has also become a major issue in the current federal election campaign. Millions of Canadian families and individuals are spending more than 50% of their income on housing and many are at serious risk of homelessness. Average home prices would need to drop by half, an estimate of $223,000 to be affordable for the typical Canadian millennials; aged 25 to 34 or average earnings would have to be doubled to $93,400.
Homelessness has become omnipresent in Britain as the demand for housing increases at a faster rate than supply, resulting in price hike. The average house price in England increased by 2.2% over the year to March 2020, up from 1.7% in the year to February 2020, with the average house price in England now at £248,000.
During the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, despite a nationwide ban on evictions, an estimate of 33,000 households were reported homeless. For many low-income individuals and families who earn below the minimum income standard, owning or renting a place is living beyond their means.
When women flee domestic abuse, they are often forced to leave their homes, with nowhere else to turn to. Adverse childhood experiences such as sexual victimisation, neglect, violence and abuse, are powerful risk factors for youth and adult homelessness as well.
Homelessness and unemployment are inextricably linked and it is a myth that all homeless people are addicts or ex-convicts. Many homeless people once had high income jobs but were forced into the predicament because they were suddenly laid off. With no income, they could not pay for their housing bills and were evicted from their homes.
According to a data in 2017, 27 percent of the homeless in the US are working either part or full-time. In the Uk, 55% of homeless families trapped in temporary accommodation are actually working, according to new research released by Shelter’s social housing commission. The exclusive analysis shows that more than 33,000 families are holding down a job, despite having nowhere stable to live.
There is also a significant portion of homeless adults who face barriers to employment as they suffer from disabilities and the value of disability benefits are often not enough for housing rental. Example, in the United States, the disability benefits of $750 per month is hardly enough to cover all the essential expenses.
Mental Illness & Lack of Support
An individual’s mental illness may lead to cognitive and behavioral problems that make it difficult to earn a stable income or to carry out daily activities in ways that encourage stable housing. In the United States, approximately one-third of all homeless individuals suffer from at least one serious mental illness. 26% of homeless people in the UK cite mental health problems as a reason for being homeless. Without support, many ended up living rough in the streets.
Effects of Homelessness
Most researchers agree that the connection between homelessness and mental illness is a complicated two-way relationship. Homeless people who are socially isolated have a higher prevalence of mental illness when compared to the general population. They are also more likely to suffer from alcoholism and drug dependency.
Research and experience demonstrate that homelessness causes severe trauma to children and youth and they are more susceptible of developing Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Homelessness causes disruptions to their relationships, put their health and safety at risk, and hampers their developments. They are also more likely to be depressed, anxious or withdrawn, and have more difficulties in school than their peers. The unsheltered homeless population also has an increased risk of exposures to communicable diseases. Unsanitary living conditions can also lead to frostbite, leg ulcers, upper respiratory infections and many homeless people are killed from hypothermia annually.
Homelessness is a growing problem that negatively impacts the nation’s economic competitiveness. it is very costly to society as people without housing are high consumers of public resources and generate expense rather than income, for the community.
Research has found that crime can play a big part in rough sleepers’ lives. Some will take desperate steps to find shelters, for instance, commit a minor crime such as shoplifting or anti-social behaviour, as a means to resolve their housing problems. Some women also venture into illegal prostitution.
Evidence also suggests that the longer someone is in this position of homelessness, the more difficult it is to get back on his feet.
It is critical that every country seek out resources with partners to identify resources, develop strategies and implement plans to ensure adequate housing and supportive services be provided at every stage in the homeless service system. Homelessness is not just a social issue, it is also a human and civil rights issue and Finland shows that homelessness is not a law of nature. It is possible to decrease and even end homelessness. It is all about recognising housing as a basic human right and having a good government who will lead the way.