“There should never be any blame or shame in being homeless. ... Homelessness is not a choice, but rather a journey that many find themselves in.” Dr. Asa Don Brown.
Homelessness is a serious problem in America. Because there are many reasons for homelessness, no one-size-fits-all solution will fix the problem.
Conservatives have proposed putting the homeless in camps, treating those who need treatment and training those who need training. Treatment and training are good; placing people in camps, not so much. Those who need mental health or addiction help should be admitted to treatment centers. Those who need education or skills training should be guided to the agencies which can help them.
But many homeless are already educated; many are working. About 10 percent of the homeless are veterans. Here in Fallon, we have homeless people who are disabled or have other health issues. Others are working but can’t find a place they can afford. They don’t need being shipped off to a camp. They need affordable housing.
Every January, a count is taken of homeless people in the U.S. It’s called the Point in Time Count (PIT). In 2018, the PIT showed 7,544 homeless in Nevada; 648 were considered chronically homeless. The 2019 PIT for Churchill County found seven adults living on the street, 12 others in some form of emergency shelter, and 19 living in motels because they couldn’t find permanent housing. The school district reported that 93 children were in some state of homelessness.
The Nov. 30 Reno Gazette Journal said, “The PIT Count is especially important for rural counties because it quantifies a ‘hidden’ problem that many believe only exists in urban areas.” For those experiencing homelessness, the problem is all too real.
A person working full-time for 52 weeks, earning $7.25/hour minimum wage, would make a gross income of $15,080/year. A person earning $15/hour would make $31,200/year. Could either of those workers afford a place here in Churchill County?
The median rent for a studio apartment in Churchill County (if one can be found) is $732/month. That’s $8,784 a year. A one-bedroom apartment is $737 ($8,844), a two-bedroom $980 ($11,760), and up from there. A minimum wage worker would find it basically impossible to pay these rents as well as their other living expenses. The higher paid worker could afford some of the rents, but it would be tight. People living on Social Security or disability would probably be out of luck. Where are these people supposed to live?
Reno is the fifth hottest housing market in the country. (Reno Gazette Journal, Dec. 26) This means rents and home prices are rising rapidly, so people look to Churchill, Lyon, and other counties for housing. This results in a severe shortage of housing, further intensifying the homeless problem.
What can be done? Demonizing the homeless as lazy or unwilling is not a solution. In fact, homelessness had been dropping for seven years, until it began rising again in 2017. Veteran homelessness had dropped 47 percent since 2010.
“The number of homeless people in the United States increased slightly for the second year in a row, a concerning setback after seven years of progress and decline. About 553,000 people nationwide were homeless on a single night in January 2018, according to a report released Tuesday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.” (Huffington Post, Dec. 18, 2018)
In that same article, Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said, “We know what to do about it: you need short-term crisis responses for if people lose housing ... and you need to make progress on affordable housing.” As housing prices rise more rapidly than incomes, this becomes more vital than ever.
Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Dr. King worked his whole life to help people achieve their full potential. On March 18, 1968, he said, “All labor has worth ... It is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.” That’s a first step toward solving many of our problems.
Here in Churchill County, government agencies are working with private groups to find humane, workable housing solutions. Without safe housing, it’s difficult for people to work, stay healthy, and function well. We should all be striving for real solutions, not knee-jerk slogans that do nothing to help. It won’t be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.