Guest Column: Be aware of causes of homelessness in the area

Published 11:20 pm Friday, November 3, 2017

Live United by Ann Austin

Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week is Sunday, Nov. 11 through Nov. 19.

This is a time of year when the weather gets colder and we are all drawn to the indoors, with blankets and a hot beverage — perhaps a stew cooking in the crockpot for dinner.

Ann Austin

Email newsletter signup

All of this sounds good, doesn’t it? But for many people in America, the scenario I presented is not even close to reality.

According to The National Coalition for the Homeless, 549,000 people are homeless in our nation. Homelessness encompasses a broad definition — it can be individuals who are living out in the elements, or people who are “couch-hopping” and relying on friends and other acquaintances to provide temporary shelter.

The reasons for homelessness vary — the lack of affordable housing, poverty and lack of employment opportunities, lack of affordable health care, domestic violence, mental illness and/or addiction can all be reasons individuals and families end up becoming homeless. There are often combined variables such as poverty and mental illness, which makes it hard for someone to escape from homelessness.

About 11 percent of homeless adults are veterans — many living with a long-term mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Their struggles are complex and many communities have limited resources to provide adequate assistance.

Homeless youth under age 24 make up 34 percent of the total homeless population. Many come from homes that are dysfunctional and have turned to drugs or alcohol to cope. Homeless youth, especially, can be taken advantage of by the people who claim to be helping them. Human trafficking has increased over the past several years — and homeless youth are an easy target for this kind of manipulation.

For people who are homeless, the cycles they are struggling with are perpetual, and it seems as though there is no way out.

Locally, homelessness looks very different than in urban areas. We tend to have larger numbers of youth who are homeless because their home is no longer a safe place for them, or they have an addiction and are no longer welcome to stay with family. Families who are homeless either stay with friends and family for short periods of time, or in some cases, live out of their vehicles.

This is where our community comes in.

We don’t have all of the resources needed to solve poverty or homelessness — which is why policymakers need to ensure there is support for our veterans, youth and families and realize this is essential for long-term success in our nation and our communities.

In addition to a strong network of support, we can all play a role on the local level.

Our community is blessed to have many resources for people who become homeless. In addition to the services provided through our Department of Human Services and Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Semcac provides three apartments for families with children who are working to stabilize their lives. And there is assistance through our local Salvation Army so people may access food and warm clothing or temporary shelter.

Our United Way is a proud supporter of these programs and others in our community that assist people in accessing the resources they need to prevent homelessness.

In some cases, homelessness is temporary — and our community can provide necessary resources to help individuals receive the support they need during an emergency.

In other cases, homelessness is the result of deep systemic issues we need to address in order to prevent an increase. We must do our part to become educated about the causes of homelessness and do what we can to address it locally. Good information may be found at these sites:

Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.