Is Homelessness Really A Police Problem?
It is virtually impossible to obtain an accurate count of the number of homeless people in a given community, let alone a state or nation. Homelessness in the United States is a problem that has been growing in magnitude for several decades.
At the national level, the best estimate of the number of homeless people was done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that approximately 3.5 million people – 1.35 million of whom are children – will experience homelessness in any given year. Estimates also indicated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population experience homelessness each year. More than 700 homeless people die in the U.S. every year because of hyperthermia alone, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In Kentucky, estimates indicate there are approximately 4,025 homeless people or about .09 percent of the state’s population.
The homeless are a diverse group of people and do not constitute a single group or a single social problem; treating them as such is an oversimplification. About 39 percent of homeless are children, 17 percent are single women, and 33 percent are families with children. The majority of all homeless people are poor, but many are employed. Poverty and a lack of adequate shelter seem to be the only binding thread that unites the people we call homeless.
The reasons behind homelessness, in my opinion, are much more varied and can be attributed to several social problems:
- There is a shortage of affordable housing. The past two decades have witnessed a substantial decrease in the amount of federal spending for subsidized housing. Likewise, the great recession and recent natural disasters have forced many from their homes and rental prices have risen dramatically.
- The wholesale depopulation of the nation’s mental-health facilities has contributed to the problem. When non-dangerous mental patients were de-institutionalized, many of them ended up on the streets. The American Psychiatric Association estimates there are more than one million homeless in need of mental-health care.
- Unemployment and underemployment are historically high, and the unskilled remain jobless or underemployed. Labor participation rates are at historic lows.
- The minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living. Unskilled jobs pay at the bottom of the pay scale, and such wages make it impossible for many families to afford housing.
- The waves of returning veterans from recent wars, many of whom suffer from mental illness, substance abuse and chronic alcoholism, contribute to the homeless ranks.
Each of these reasons for homelessness points to poor public policy. A shortage of affordable housing is no accident, depopulation of the nation’s mental hospitals was a public-policy decision, changes in the welfare system were voted on, jobs were outsourced, and the mental-health care provided to veterans is inadequate. Congress sets the minimum wage and determines funding for social programs, and the viability of the extended family has been all but destroyed by creating a high-modern, mobile, and largely disposable labor force.
None of the aforementioned conditions came about by accident, and police are called upon to deal with the consequences of poor policy choices. When there is a lack of political will to solve a social problem, more often than not, it becomes a police problem. Perhaps it is time for police to advocate realistic public policy to address the homeless issue.