Homelessness: A Systemic Problem

Jack Toan, Illumination Foundation Co-Chief Executive Officer

The national Point in Time (PIT) count is an attempt by US Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to count the number of sheltered and unsheltered people who are experiencing homelessness on a single night across the United States. Counts are conducted on an annual basis (the pandemic disrupted the 2021 count). The people who participate in the count are typically community workers and volunteers who comb streets, underpasses, tent cities, shelters, parks, and other areas where people experiencing homelessness stay, noting gender, race, age, and time homeless. HUD posts results of the PIT on their website and these numbers may influence funding decisions for communities and they serve to track progress towards the goal of ending homelessness. 

According to the 2020 PIT, more than 580,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States, of which more than 161,000 people were in California. In Los Angeles County, homelessness steadily increases even though the County houses thousands of people experiencing homelessness each year. Homelessness disproportionately affects communities and people of color. In every state, African Americans are between three and 20 times more likely to experience homelessness than whites. 

Is the PIT a useful methodology for measuring homelessness? “Well, it is a gross indicator that we are all familiar with but it is also a huge underestimate,” said Dr. Sam Tsemberis, Founder, and Executive Director of Pathways Housing First Institute (www.pathwayshousingfirst.org). 

“Counting the number of people on the streets or in shelters on only one night of the year, the third Thursday in January from midnight to 7AM, is a tiny window of time and excludes millions of people not seen that night who become homeless during the entire year,” Tsemberis said during a recent consortium hosted by Illumination Foundation, where I serve as Co-CEO. “It is an enormous underestimate of how many Americans experience homelessness each year.” Tsemberis also reported that “estimates from national surveys estimate the total number of people experiencing homelessness in a given year closer to 10-12 million people.” 

But regardless of the degree of inaccuracy, even the PIT counts tell us that the numbers of people experiencing homelessness continues to increase, Tsemberis said. Communities across the country are housing people, but not quickly enough to keep up with a growing number that is falling into homeless —this pattern tells us that homelessness is a systemic problem.

Illumination Foundation staff members participate
in the Point and Time count in January 2022

Housing affordability crisis that contributes to homelessness:

  • The US has stopped building public housing
  • In economically vibrant coastal cities gentrification is eliminating neighborhoods with affordable housing
  • Rents are increasing at a much higher rate than wages 
  • If renters with minimum wage jobs lose their housing, they are often priced out of getting housed again
  • People experiencing homeless are more likely to get hospitalized or arrested
  • Jails and hospitals do not include housing as part of discharge and people are revolving in and out of these institutions 
  • Youths in the foster care system aging out with no place to call home
  • There is racial discrimination in the rental market

“Our use of the term homeless is misleading as it makes it sound like it is a personal problem, distracting us from looking at the underlying societal causes. It would be more accurate to define this issue as a national lack of commitment to building affordable or subsidized housing rather than a problem of homelessness,” Tsemberis said. While we must respond to the needs of the most vulnerable, we must also acknowledge that these needs arose through the systems and policies our society has created. 

As Tsemberis points out, “Homelessness is the result of our failed economic, housing, and health policies.” To disrupt the cycle of homelessness requires not only that we provide the direct safety-net, but that we directly participate in creating economic, housing, and health systems that promote equity.

Learn more about housing and healthcare for those experiencing homelessness at www.ifhomeless.org.

As a refugee whose family relied on the kindness of strangers, Jack Toan understands the power of a collective community that cares and actively works to lift others up. His experience drives his belief in creating social change through action. In February 2021, he joined Orange County, California-based Illumination Foundation as Chief Operating Officer. He is now Co-CEO of Illumination Foundation. Illumination Foundation’s mission is to disrupt the cycle of homelessness. 

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