Life moves at a different pace and reality when you are homeless. It can happen to most of us under the right circumstances and it does not take much. I was homeless for two months during the 1980s, and all I can recall is the instability and the fear it brings. Where was I going to sleep? Where was my next meal coming from? How would I get to school or work? Vulnerability sweeps over you, and staying alive becomes a primal concern.
As executive director of Cross Roads House, the second largest homeless shelter in New Hampshire, every day is full of life-changing events as we work with the first-time and long-time homeless. The problem is not getting smaller as more people get left behind by an increasingly merciless economy and culture becoming immune to extreme poverty.
Homelessness has no bounds, but it will always impact most deeply our vulnerable populations. The poor, the marginalized and, increasingly, our elderly. At Cross Roads House, we have seen our over 62+ aged population increase from 11% to 15% in one year. We do not see this letting up. Particularly as older New Hampshire residents on fixed incomes continue to be pushed out of housing to make way for others that can afford to pay higher rents. Single parents on fixed incomes facing the multiple challenges of life are also just as vulnerable. As are youth. InDepthNH.org (March 22, 2021) estimates, based on University of Chicago research, that New Hampshire has 15,000 couch-surfing youth. Statistics kept by NHDOE counted 3,378 homeless children in 2021/22.
Truth of the matter is that there are no exact numbers that account for all the homeless in America or New Hampshire. Much of the projections are based on in-time counts, which are the number of homeless counted in one given night across cities and municipalities. We suspect that these numbers significantly undercount the real problem of homelessness. For example, these numbers do not capture individuals and families that are couch surfing or are housed in some sort of transitional shelter situation. As an example of the differing numbers, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, in 2017 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported 553,742 people that were homeless in the United States. However, the U.S. Department of Education found that in 2013-2014, 1.3 million school children were homeless. In New Hampshire in fiscal year 2020-2021, according to the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness (NHCEH), 4,500 of our citizens — children, individuals and families — were homeless. This number does not even begin to account for the estimates of couch-surfing youth mentioned above.
As in many other phases of American life, culturally diverse communities and people of color are negatively impacted to a much higher degree that the white population at large when it comes to homelessness. Again, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness 2022 report, “Race is another significant predictor. As with so many other areas of American life, historically marginalized groups are more likely to be disadvantaged within housing and homelessness spheres. Higher unemployment rates, lower incomes, less access to health care, and higher incarceration rates are some of the factors likely contributing to higher rates of homelessness among people of color.” Add structural racism and bias throughout our society and you begin to see how culturally and/or racially distinct groups are more deeply impacted by homelessness. According to the study mentioned above, within the general population, 18 of 10,000 are homeless. That number rises for Native Americans to 45 of 10,000 and Blacks or African Americans to 52 of 10,000. In New Hampshire, according to the NHCEH State of Homelessness 2021 Annual Report, African Americans/Blacks were four times and Hispanics two times more likely to be homeless when compared to homelessness among the state’s white population.
Homelessness is deeply tied to poverty, and poverty is deeply conflated with an economic system that leaves people behind or discounts them completely, regardless of your skin color, your culture or your background. For decades in America, this battle has been bravely fought by smart, passionate and courageous people, but here we still are. As a society, we fail to understand that housing is not just four walls. These are places to find stability and heal to prepare for the rest of life and, hopefully, to prosper. Problem is, band-aid solutions used for decades have failed to stem the tide of homelessness, and the problem is only getting worse. Finding a permanent solution will require a shift in how we see the homeless and how we strive to create a more equitable economic system.
It can happen to anyone of us. It happened to me.
This article is featured in the spring 2023 issue of 603 Diversity.
603 Diversity’s mission is to educate readers of all backgrounds about the exciting accomplishments and cultural contributions of the state’s diverse communities, as well as the challenges faced and support needed by those communities to continue to grow and thrive in the Granite State.
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