Thomas Rebman is a middle school teacher and a veteran who has been traveling across the country to raise awareness about homelessness by living as a homeless person. You may have already read about him as he’s appeared in local news outlets several times during his tour. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with him while he was living homeless in Skid Row, an area Los Angeles that is notorious for its high concentration of chronic homelessness.
Where are you right now and what’s it like there?
I’m about two blocks east of Skid Row on First. I’ve been on Skid Row for about four days. I came here to highlight mental illness among the homeless, because I knew there was a lot of it here. But I had no idea how much. Los Angeles really is a completely different animal than any other city I’ve visited. The amount of mental illness I’ve seen on Skid Row is shocking.
Why do people become homeless? This is a complicated question with numerous, complex answers. For some people, it may be because they lost a job or had an unforeseen medical crisis. For others, it may be because the cost of rent rose and they were unable to afford the payments.
Every person who experiences homelessness has a unique situation. However, research shows that homelessness often is a result of two factors: economic problems and/or housing problems. Economic problems include poverty and unemployment. In other words, if you don’t have the money to pay for housing, you’re vulnerable to homelessness. Housing problems include severe housing cost burden—in which a poor household pays over half of their income in rent—and living doubled up—in which people live with family or friends. Housing problems generally stem from a lack of affordable housing.
As communities are becoming more advanced in their efforts to end chronic homelessness they are taking steps to secure funding in systemic ways and from a variety of sources, including Medicaid.
Chronically homeless people make up just a small part of the overall homeless population (15 percent on a given night), but they are the hardest to help. All chronically homeless people struggle with serious physical or mental disabilities, including mental illnesses like schizophrenia and alcohol or drug addiction, that make obtaining and maintaining housing on their own extremely difficult.
You might have heard of the Homeless Children and Youth Act (S.256), which was introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein to address family and youth homelessness. The Alliance opposes this bill because it will not solve the housing problems of families and youth that it aims to, and makes significant changes to the homeless assistance system that are unnecessary, burdensome, and harmful. This document explains three detrimental impacts this bill would have and suggests alternative approaches to address the problems the bill aims to address.
Those of us who have been engaged in efforts to end family homelessness over the past decade need to acknowledge one of two things: Either the work is extremely complex and difficult, or we’re not very good at our jobs. While both of these statements could be true, given the time, talent, and passion that so many have been focusing on this issue for so long, we conclude (and hope) that the first statement is more accurate.
There are many different crises that can catapult a family into homelessness: Loss of a job, domestic violence, accidents or serious illness, and inter-generational poverty – to name just a few. In addition, despite efforts to coordinate, past experiences in responding to homelessness have shown us that, although admirable, fragmented, non-integrated efforts to solve this problem by organizations and systems working independently and on their own have not stemmed the tide of this crisis.