Homelessness IS a Choice;

But Not for the Usual Scapegoats

Diane Nilan

--

Hardships and homelessness go hand-in-hand, often gradually, and not as most think. The popular “mental health, addiction” misnomer lets lots of people off the hook, pointing fingers at hapless, helpless hobo stereotypes while overlooking greedy property owners.

This Phoenix area shelter provides life-saving shelter, but little comfort or privacy, typical of many shelters. Quote from my latest book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America Photo by Diane Nilan

In these post-pandemic times, the economic fallout has ravaged the bottom edge of society while the other side has done quite well at the expense of people in poverty.

Significant rent hikes are the highly contagious econ-pandemic syndrome happening nationwide. I’ve recently heard of 3 examples where property owners (can we shelve the archaic, misogynous term “landlords”?) hiked rents into the stratosphere.

In one case, a mom one step from homelessness that I’ve known for a couple of decades, shared her fear and frustration about her property owner jacking up her trailer lot rent over $300. What made this worse was timing. It coincided with the drastic loss of income when her son’s disability payments were arbitrarily cancelled. Trust me when I say this family is living on the edge. A rent hike like this will push them over it.

The other are my neighbors. I’m new to this very rural western North Carolina neighborhood; they’ve been here for years. They live on land recently bought by a local realtor after the owner died and her property, including my two neighbors’ modest houses, went on the market. They’re legally entitled to remain on the property, per the previous owner’s specifications.

Rents for these two houses are incredibly low. But so are the income levels for both households. One person is significantly disabled, unable to work, dependent on disability payments. The scrappy couple in the other house work but barely make ends meet. They don’t have a bankroll stashed for inevitable emergencies as they age.

Their lessor just informed them that rent is going up, from the ultra-affordable and rare $250 mo. to an undoable $725. For those in more expensive areas, this “high” sounds dreamy low. For these 2 renters, it’s the kiss of death, or eventual homelessness. Just because the owner can.

Typical rural housing, basic, and in need of upkeep. Photo by Diane Nilan

Housing Upheavals Cause Homelessness

I’m not a communist or socialist, per se, but I lean towards mercy and common sense. And because I’ve worked in the world of homelessness for the past 4 decades, I’ve seen plenty of homelessness caused by greed, among other things beyond the “mental illness, addictions” trope. Here’s my acclaimed “Other Stuff” chart that identifies causes of homelessness.

A single mother facing displacement in the Lexington, KY area, recently shared her plight with local TV news:

Currently, Davita Gatewood is fighting to keep her housing because her landlord has informed her that he’s interested in selling the property.

She says the increased rent has plagued the city, and now, on top of that, federal funds to assist those to pay the rent are depleted.

She’s rightly concerned that her children will join the record number of students experiencing homelessness in KY’s Fayette County schools.

Reasons for Rent Increases

Reasonable, justified rent increases can’t usually be avoided. OK. But when the reason for escalating rents is basically because they can, everyone else is doing it, or to push the low-rent tenant out, well, shame!

Our nation has a huge homelessness problem, now being blamed on immigrants who are being shuffled around and shoved into subhuman conditions because we, as a nation, choose that response. In Chicago, a new 60-day limit for migrants in shelters will force a brutal upheaval on those who have endured inhumane treatment before and after their arrival here.

“Chicago educators and advocates are concerned about how Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new 60-day limit for shelter stays for migrant families will impact attendance and stability for migrant students.”

We’re also choosing to ignore our existing burgeoning homeless population.

The Syracuse, NY area has focused media attention on their affordable housing/homelessness crisis. Recent rent increases add to the drastic increase of family homelessness, up 41% with 75% of those families never before homeless.

According to data from the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Fair Market Rate representing the 40th percentile of rent in the Syracuse Metro Area has gone from $688 in 2019 to $897 in 2023, with most of that uptick arriving in just the last year.

Coincidence? Nah.

Rest assured, we who enjoy secure places to rest, that those hitting the streets in rural NY counties, or anywhere, don’t get the help needed to get back on their feet. “Unprecedented” levels of homelessness there and elsewhere is what’s being seen, something I’ve witnessed in my vast HEAR US Inc. travels, especially since the pandemic.

How to stop creating homelessness on the local level?

Where and how does this stop? It won’t be simple. Homelessness policy advocates vying for attention of our scandal-focused Members of Congress continue to try to be heard and heeded. Good luck with that! Diane Yentl, head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, points out the obvious that so many miss:

Inaction is expensive. So as a country we pay to allow for homelessness and housing insecurity to persist.

Government funds — federal, state, and local — must be a significant ingredient. And don’t tell me we can’t afford it. My new home state of North Carolina provides a textbook example of how money gets misdirected. CarolinaForward recently reported:

The new state budget directed over $20 million to so-called “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs), a particularly insidious strategy widely employed by the anti-abortion Right to prevent abortions by lying to women about their healthcare. There are many such groups in North Carolina, and they specifically target low-income women with fewer options and less access to medical care.

For the hard-to-convince naysayers who believe the economy is even-handed, my friend Pat LaMarche, who writes for the Bucks County (PA) Beacon, pointed out a glaring discrepancy:

As of 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau named Bucks County one of the wealthiest counties in Pennsylvania and home to more than 1,500 millionaires. The median income for Bucks County topped out at $99,302 a year — about 32 grand higher than the commonwealth median of $67,587.

Another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Education, released other statistics recently about Bucks County and these are a little more grim. In the academic year 2020–2021, 754 students experienced homelessness. If you’re home doing the math, that’s one student for every two millionaires.

Until Government Spending Gets Redirected…

The well-heeled rarely grasp the issue of homelessness. Photo by Diane Nilan

For the unbridled corporate moguls, the dreaded Feds need to try old-fashioned justifiable bullying. Scour their financial records and deals. Discover nefarious dealings shortchanging our nation’s treasury, and us. These scoundrels who swoop up property, oust tenants with impunity, escalate housing costs to the stratosphere, they’re behind a massive amount of housing insecurity and homelessness in our country.

Non-corporate property owners could start a movement to encourage needs-based rent increases, not greed-based. But for private property owners, some questions:

  • Do you really NEED to increase rents?
  • Or are you doing it because you can?
  • Do you realize that if your tenants have to move, they’ll likely not be able to find housing they can afford*?
  • Did you forget that moving is expensive, traumatic, and that your next renters may not be “better” than those you have?

*This, not being able to find affordable housing, is the starting point of homelessness for far too many. And it may lead to, or exacerbate, mental illness and/or addictions. Besides the obvious detrimental impact on those who become homeless, we all are impacted when homelessness spirals out of control.

I’m offering these thoughts as a common sense approach within our control to mitigating causes of homelessness. Choose to follow my suggestion or not. But don’t talk about homelessness as a “choice” for those without housing. It’s your choice.

--

--

Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us