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No Room For You

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Homelessness, Under-Housing and Survival of People Who Trade Sex

Part One of Three

A single mother of 2 teenagers recently called the Community Support Line. She’s gone to police in her home state of Tennessee - one of the worst of the southern states where anti trafficking organizations flourish with reckless and harmful rhetoric about prostitution and trafficking - to report being violently assaulted.

After seeing her ads posted on an escort website, police looked at the woman, with her two black eyes, first and cowboy boot-shaped bruises on her torso and ligature marks around her neck, and refused to take her report. They instead took her and her children to a homeless shelter and said they’d contact an anti-trafficking organization on her behalf if she would assist them in entrapping prostitution clients.

The anti-trafficking org put her in a rundown motel miles from a grocery store for 7 days, provided the bare minimum of food and instructed her that their assistance would be limited to the time when she was cooperating with police. She initially agreed to assist police but her injuries - and her fear of leaving 2 children alone in the hotel for extended periods of time - prevented her from following through. The non-profit anti trafficking org advised her their assistance with the temporary shelter would end at check out the following day.

The woman’s brother in another state had agreed to allow her to stay with him but after a torturous bus ride, supplemented with CashApp mutual aid from SBB, he informed her that his landlord denied allowing her small, traumatized family to stay in his home.

Once again she was placed in a hotel and connected to a few local services with little more than the clothes on their back. This brave survivor got a job within a few days and started the laborious process of rebuilding her life. But with more than a month of living in a perpetual state of moving from one inadequate shelter to another, she expressed regret about leaving the home of her abuser, wishing she had stayed and taken the beatings because “at least she knew what was going to happen”. Not knowing where her childrens' next meal would come from caused her extreme anxiety.

Way to go protecting children Tennessee.

More than half a million people experienced homelessness in America last year. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “counted” around 582,000 Americans experiencing homelessness in 2022. That’s about 18 per 10,000 people in the US, up about 2,000 people from 2020. Homelessness in the United States is on the rise and has been since 2017. According to End Homelessness, homelessness has increased 7% during this time frame, but there are several different kinds of “experiences” that are not really accurately represented because the large majority of people who are experiencing homelessness - or being underhoused - are invisible. Their invisibility both protects them from harassment from law enforcement, prying and judgemental eyes of the general public but also efforts to “count” them.

There continues to be an overrepresentation of people who identify as Black, African American, or African, as well as indigenous people (including Native Americans and Pacific Islanders) among the population experiencing homelessness compared to the U.S. population. People who identify as Black made up just 12 percent of the total U.S. population but comprised 37 percent of all people experiencing homelessness and 50 percent of people experiencing homelessness as members of families with children.

There are a lot of publicly available statistics on the health and safety implications of “experiencing homelessness” and people who face chronic homelessness live, on average, 27 years less than the average American. Chronic homelessness is a major risk factor for a host of diseases and medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. They are also at risk for exploitation, various forms of violence and harassment, and the most extreme forms of discrimination and marginalization. People of color, people who identify as LGBTQIA+ and sex workers are consistently over-represented in homeless populations.

In 2011, the Department of Housing and Urban Development expanded its homeless definition from a very narrow focus of literally “being unsheltered”, to four broadly encompassing categories and also established complicated “recordkeeping” requirements based on four categories under which individuals and families may qualify as homeless. These categories include:

Literally Homeless - Individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, meaning:

  • Has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not meant for human habitation;

  • Is living in a publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements (including congregate shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charitable organizations or by federal, state and local government programs)

  • Is exiting an institution where he or she has resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution

Imminent Risk of Homelessness - Individual or family who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence, provided that:

  • Residence will be lost within 14 days of the date of application for homeless assistance

  • No subsequent residence has been identified;

  • The Individual Or Family Lacks The Resources Or Support networks needed to obtain other permanent housing

Homeless under other Federal Statutes; Unaccompanied youth under 25 years of age, or families with children and youth, who do not otherwise qualify as homeless under this definition, but who

  • Are defined as homeless under the other listed federal statutes;

  • Have not had a lease, ownership interest, or occupancy agreement in permanent housing during the 60 days prior to the homeless assistance application;

  • Have experienced persistent instability as measured by two moves or more during in the preceding 60 days;

  • Can be expected to continue in such status for an extended period of time due to special needs or barriers

Fleeing/attempting to flee Domestic Violence - Any individual or family who:

  • Is fleeing, or is attempting to flee, domestic violence

  • Has no other residence

  • Lacks the resources or support networks to obtain other permanent housing

As one would expect from a government institution, the qualifiers for getting access to supportive services and possible assistance with housing was labor intensive and inaccessible for people who didn’t have the ability to access a PDF document, print it out, complete the application, collect the necessary documentation and travel to a location where they could submit it. Thus the likelihood of going from the “At Imminent Risk, Homeless Under Federal Statutes or Fleeing Domestic Violence” category to the “Literally Homeless category was almost guaranteed.

States with the largest absolute increases in homelessness between 2020 and 2022 were California), Louisiana , Tennessee, and Oregon. States with the largest percentage increases between 2020 and 2022 were: Vermont, Louisiana, Maine, and Delaware.

Thanks to robust and dedicated advocates and progressive Covid policies, between 2020 and 2022, states with the largest absolute decreases in people experiencing homelessness were New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. Areas with the largest percentage decreases were the District of Columbia, New Mexico, and New York.

Resolving Homelessness and Underhousing is Possible

Homelessness and under housing will continue to be a challenge as we move past Treatment First models that “band aid” the bullet wound of chronic and situational loss of safe housing. Domestic and Interpersonal Violence, Criminalization, Mental Health, Unbankability, Lack of Technology and Internet Access and the ever present Generational Poverty will continue to impact our ability to transition people who are marginalized and discriminated against to find their way down the difficult path of stability.

But there is the shimmer of hope...

Studies from various pilot projects launched as early as 2000 from around the USA are starting to publish extensive results that demonstrate we have the ability to end homelessness and doing so will reduce both the cost of their healthcare to the taxpayer and improve their ability to thrive. The national inventory of beds for people currently or formerly experiencing homelessness increased by 11 percent between 2020 and 2022. There are almost 100 times more available beds for unwanted pets than there are for human beings.

The largest increases in year-round inventory in any inventory type occurred in emergency shelters, rapid re-housing, and other permanent housing. Within emergency shelter programs, the largest increase in inventory was for voucher-based beds which are often single-occupancy rooms in hotels or motels (as opposed to congregate facility-based beds), which increased by 243 percent between 2020 and 2022. This increase reflects a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which many communities made investments in non-congregate forms of shelter.

The question is not IF we can resolve under-housing and homelessness in the United States - it's WILL we?

Stay tuned for next weeks blog post for a critical look at Housing First programs and where they succeed and where they fail to provide protections for our community.

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