Addressing the root of homelessness in Pennsylvania

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The Editorial Board

The bottom line is that homelessness needs to end.

The cause of ongoing homelessness is not merely a lack of housing. For example, in Pennsylvania, the number of vacant housing units in 2019 stood around 613 thousand. When considering that there were just over 13 thousand homeless people in PA on any given night, one can show that there were over 45 vacant homes for every homeless person. There is clearly a glut in the housing market, yet some people still have no choice but to live on the streets.

If there are so many more empty houses than homeless people, one might wonder why we are not doing more to help provide housing for those in need of homes. One possible cause for apprehension is the sentiment that those in need of homes are merely lazy. This belief, the one which might lead somebody to tell a homeless person to “get a job,” is simply wrong.

However, many homeless people are actively employed. Researchers have found that anywhere between 25 percent to 60 percent of homeless people in America have jobs. High rent costs, paying for education, and other expenses can deplete an income. The National Low Income Housing Coalition has an interactive map detailing the costs of renting two-room apartments throughout the country. In Pennsylvania, to afford one of these apartments, one would have to earn at least $19.63 per hour. Those working minimum or average paying jobs, especially with families, may struggle to afford rent. The United Methodist Outreach Ministries also explains that homeless people without a job are stuck in the interview cycle. Eligible candidates are considered unhirable for reasons such as not having up to date identification or a permanent (non-shelter) address, not having transportation or ways to follow up with employers, or the means to dress professionally. If no one hires them, the cycle cannot end.

It is the case that many homeless people are working or looking for work. Many of those who are not working often have valid reasons. One possible cause is not an unwillingness to work but an inability to do so because of mental health disorders. This cause is supported by a 2015 survey, which showed that 45% of homeless people had some form of mental illness. This group of people are some of the most in need of help, yet our society leaves them out on the streets to fend for themselves.

People with mental illness are not the only group that disproportionately experience homelessness; another is college students. A 2019 survey from the Hope Center found that 17% of students had experienced homelessness in the prior year. College students work hard in their studies. These students, most of whom are working jobs in addition to attending school, still find themselves facing extreme housing insecurity.

There are resources for Pennsylvania residents facing homelessness. The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides a list of resources, including hotlines, shelters, support groups, and housing counselors. Depending on the need, the housing counseling services may be provided free of charge. PA’s Department of Human Services offers four main ways they assist — emergency shelters, shared housing available for up to eighteen months, helping with rent payments, and an “Innovative Supporting Housing Service,” where they find additional means to assist individuals. The Housing Alliance of PA offers COVID-19 resources and webinars to educate citizens and share affordable housing search engines and counseling services. 

These resources are essential but are not permanent solutions. If there will be any real change, we need to dispel the myth that homeless people are lazy. There needs to be a fundamental shift in how society views homeless people, from lazy bones to calcium-rich milk bones.