Some people look at the homeless and think, “Drugs did that.” Or they think, “Laziness did that.” But I can tell you honestly: The actual experience of being homeless destroys those suppositions pretty quickly.
Homelessness can happen to anybody. No matter what you do, no matter what you have now, disability, illness or economic disaster can strike without warning. One thing I learned while homeless is that very few homeless people ever thought that it could happen to them.
The issues that I mention here are just a few that must be faced to change what is happening. There are many more, but I think that these four are some of the most important.
1. We have to get serious about affordable housing.
The average rent in Salt Lake City is $1,235 for an apartment of just over 800 square feet. That’s more than a person earning minimum wage earns all month. While in the shelter, I met a lot of people who were only homeless because they were disabled or on Social Security.
My wife, a registered nurse who was disabled through no fault of her own, receives $1,173 a month and $15 in food stamps. Some disabled people receive less than that. These are people who worked all their lives, only to find that Social Security or disability doesn’t provide anywhere near enough on which to live. Being approved for housing assistance of any kind only means a spot on a waiting list that can be over five years long. What do you do for five years?
2. The minimum wage must be raised.
The minimum wage right now is $7.25 an hour, the same amount it’s been for almost 14 years. A full-time job on minimum wage provides for rent on a one-bedroom apartment in exactly zero cities in the United States. The problem here should be immediately obvious.
When individuals or families are paying more than 50% of their income on rent, they are at risk for homelessness. Even at a wage of $10 an hour, single earners must spend more than 50% of their income on rent. Contrary to conservative opinion, raising the minimum wage positively affects the economy. All states that have raised their minimum wages have seen their economies greatly improve.
3. The “war on drugs” must end.
Why? Because it never worked. What we need is a war on addiction. Imagine if we had built new treatment centers instead of new jails and prisons! All the “war on drugs” has ever accomplished was to give the “land of the free” the black eye of having more people in jails and prisons than any other nation on earth. That, and an ever-growing class of people who can no longer get a job or an apartment because they have drug-related convictions on their records.
We live in a nation so backward that we’ve legalized marijuana but not people who used marijuana. Far too many people are consigned to homelessness because of convictions earned during the failed “war on drugs.”
4. We must help the mentally ill.
It’s incomprehensible to me the cruelty of today’s society with regard to the mentally ill. Since President Ronald Reagan emptied the mental hospitals in the 1980s, it has somehow become OK to allow people with mental disabilities languish on the streets. I really don’t understand this. Most of the mentally ill whom I encountered while homeless were likely schizophrenic, more or less detached from reality. There are good medications to treat schizophrenia, but the streets and homeless shelters aren’t good places to manage those kinds of medications. We must be more humane in this regard.
America now faces the greatest housing crisis in its history, 30 million to 40 million people face imminent eviction. Imagine the number of unhoused people doubling or tripling in the coming months.
Utah reduced shelter capacity by nearly 400 last year. Not smart. Nobody knew a pandemic was coming, of course, but now the pandemic’s aftermath could be as bad as the Great Depression. Dealing with this will take money; there’s no way around that. We just might have to tax a few billionaires.
Kip Yost is a formerly homeless person now living with his wife in an apartment in Salt Lake City.