Posted: Dec 8, 2012 at 5:18 PM [Dec 8, 2012]
By Justin Hodge
What pops into your head when you think about the homeless? Most people conjure up the image of a solitary individual standing on a street corner with a sign. While this is a common scenario, it does not provide a clear representation of how many people homelessness affects and in what ways. Looking specifically at the Ann Arbor area, the Washtenaw Housing Alliance estimates that 4,700 people, half of which include families with children, experience homelessness each year. Homelessness entails more than not having a home and its effects are particularly powerful on children.
Being homeless puts you at a much greater risk for serious physical and mental health problems as well as aggravating preexisting health issues, including problems related to substance abuse and addiction. Additionally, on average homeless people spend more time in jail or prison, which is often due to legislation, such as laws against sleeping in cars or loitering, which purposely target the homeless.
All of these situations pose problems not only for the people suffering through them, but also for people uninvolved as well. For example, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that homeless people are hospitalized on average four days longer per visit, which translates to an extra cost of about $2500. Extra costs such as those and the additional costs of needlessly incarcerating the homeless are expenses that fall to the city and taxpayers to manage, which could be circumvented by proper services to assist the homeless.
While there are a multitude of issues that contribute to people becoming homeless, such medical emergencies, sudden job loss, and death in the family, the National Alliance to End Homelessness cites the inability to find affordable housing as the primary cause. This rings even truer for Ann Arbor in which, as estimated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the average price of rent for a two bedroom apartment is $882 a month, nearly, $200 above the state’s average price. To pay rent at that price you would have to make at least $16.96 an hour, which is also well above the average pay of most jobs in Ann Arbor; in fact, you would have to work more than two jobs at minimum wage to make that amount. This is even more startling when you take into account that these numbers don’t reflect the costs of typical expenses and necessities.
Homeless families are in a particularly difficult situation as the adults have to provide for the children as well, which further increases expenses. Because children from these families often continue going to school while the adults are able to hold down some kind of job, homeless families represent a community that is both in plain sight but also hidden as many people are not aware of their struggles. According to Azibo Stevens, the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ Homeless Liaison, the hardships that the families experience often manifests themselves in the school lives of the children through a lack of motivation, lowered performance on common assessments, disciplinary issues, and truancy. While these issues sometimes bring attention to the child’s situation, sometimes this goes unnoticed and the school never becomes aware.
As the district’s Homeless Liaison, Stevens is tasked with identifying and assisting students from homeless families to ensure that they have access to all of the services provided by the public school system. In line with research, Stevens also finds that the lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor to be the main cause of homelessness. Many of the families he serves moved to Ann Arbor in hopes of taking advantage of the resources for low-income families, networking opportunities, and the opportunity to get more involved with charitable organizations. However, families instead find themselves on extensive housing waiting lists in a city that is very expensive to live in.
To combat the problem, Stevens asserts that there needs to be a greater emphasis on affordable housing and programs to help people develop marketable job skills to obtain a sustainable job. Without those, people will be trapped in a vicious cycle of receiving just enough assistance to temporarily find a home and then falling back into homelessness. This is where you can come in; there are several ways you can help or get involved. Alpha House, an emergency shelter for homeless children and families, thrives on donations and volunteers (http://alphahouse-ihn.org). Also, our state representative, Jeff Irwin (email@example.com; (517) 373-2577), spent the 10 years prior to his election fighting homelessness in Washtenaw county and is passionate about meeting the needs of concerned citizens.
Even if you don’t have a personal stake in helping the homeless, this is still an issue that affects our community, financially through the expenses on the city and morally by the suffering going on in our neighborhoods.