From Homelessness to Giving Back – A Student’s Journey

On August 12, 2020, Gordon Wayne began a 16 day, 550-mile trek from Virginia to Boston College, all on foot. At first glance, Gordon may appear to be an average, middle-class college student. However, last year, Gordon was facing very different circumstances. Despite working extremely long hours and attending community college, Gordon was experiencing homelessness. With his car as his only means of shelter, Gordon applied to Boston College and was accepted with a full financial aid package which included housing. Months after, during a pandemic that caused a rise in foreclosure and evictions, Gordon took to the streets – literally – to create awareness and raise money for homelessness.

Gordon is far from alone in his experience of homeless – in Virginia alone, there are almost 6,000 people experiencing homelessness every night. Throughout the United States, the number increases to over 550,000, with about 68,000 of those individuals being college students. In fact, a recent study showed that 60% of college students had experienced food insecurity or housing insecurity within the last 30 days. The current COVID-19 pandemic has put an increased strain on the available resources for students who were already struggling. The time spent residing on campus during the semester was often a safe space for these students, who may now have to find alternate arrangements.

With many colleges now going remote, some students are left with no place to go to finish their semester. Some schools regularly have programs to address homelessness among students; for example, Kennesaw State University’s Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Services is a program that offers assistance with housing, food insecurity, and supportive services. A growing number of schools host campus food pantries, which have grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. While other schools may not have ongoing dedicated programs like KSU, many are able to provide guidance to students about local resources.

Depending on the area they live in, people experiencing homelessness can face harsh weather conditions if they are unsheltered and struggle to access basic necessities like food, water, and bathrooms. Without access to bathrooms or similar facilities, it can be near-impossible to maintain a socially acceptable presence, making it even harder to find a job. On top of all of this, many people experiencing homelessness encounter high levels of violence and do not have access to adequate healthcare. The inability to access healthcare can leave many physical and mental problems untreated.

One of the most effective programs to reduce homelessness is the federal housing assistance program. While it can take time to access due to waiting lists, this is a stable solution to housing insecurity. Recent years have seen a push for a new approach using the Housing First model. Housing First means that while housing is the top priority, services are available to help in other aspects of life as well, while taking the whole person into account. Housing First takes away many of the traditional barriers to accessing housing and offers it to those who want it, not just those who have proven they are “ready” for housing by maintaining sobriety or meeting other prerequisites.

Gordon’s journey was an incredible display of both human resilience and generosity. A few strangers brought Gordon supplies during his walk and even more donated to his fundraising site. Since starting his walk, Gordon has raised over $160,000 to benefit the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

https://twitter.com/Time4Homes/status/1325801599793500167

This year, the week of November 15-22 was National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Every year the National Coalition for the Homeless works with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness to raise money and awareness for individuals struggling with food and housing insecurity. To make a contribution to National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, click here. For those in need of assistance with food, here is a list of food pantries.

With winter approaching and many unknowns still surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the stressors each individual is facing are constantly changing. Until December 31, 2020, there is a national eviction moratorium, meaning you cannot be evicted from your apartment due to the nonpayment of rent or fees. In order to be protected under this moratorium, you must submit a form to your landlord. If you are in need of help with rent, there are COVID-19 rental assistance programs throughout the country. You can also find local resources by calling 211 or visiting the 211 website here.

End Homelessness Through Eviction Prevention

evictions

Despite positive trends showing that homelessness has steadily decreased since 2007, nearly 600,000 people were homeless in the US at the beginning of 2014. In fact, two cities in the US rank in the top worldwide for cities with extremely high homeless populations. This is relatively high considering the US is the “richest nation” with 41.6 percent of total global personal wealth.

Most homeless people, defined as people sleeping outside, in an emergency shelter, or otherwise transitional housing program, don’t choose to live on the streets. Unfortunately, there are common misconceptions regarding the stereotypes and habits of homeless people, such as having mental illness or drug dependency, further tainting the image society has on this underprivileged group. However, a significant portion of these people have been reduced to homelessness by an increasingly common cause: evictions.

Evictions leading to homelessness

This demographic of the homeless are evicted tenants, often with families, who are in financial situations where they can no longer afford to live under a roof. According to HomeStart, a housing assistance program, 36 percent of eviction cases will result in the tenant being evicted, driving low-income tenants to face impending homelessness. With the minimum wage being insufficient to support a working family, affordable housing for low-income households can be scarce. In fact, in just New York City alone, around 22,000 families per year have been ordered by court to leave their housing premises.

Often those who are suddenly evicted have insufficient time to search for a new home or acquire the necessary finances for their next rental, leading to the possibility of homelessness. It is illegal for a landlord to kick a tenant out by force, without court order. Evictions, intended for legitimate reasons such as lease violations, failure to pay rent, or property damage, are increasingly being used on low-income tenants illegally or unfairly as a result of increasing gentrification in certain neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, New York City.

What are some preventive measures?

Thankfully, tenants at risk of not having a home do have legal avenues and resources to fight back. The Institute for Research of Poverty, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states that “tenants with legal counsel are much less likely to be evicted.”

Michelle Yang, a licensed US attorney and legal counsel advises, “Knowing the law and your rights is key. Read your lease carefully and look up your state’s landlord-tenant laws. Carefully document and build your defense, and be prepared to argue your case at an eviction hearing. You can also take advantage of free legal services provided by organizations such as Legal Aid or the NY Housing Courts.”

There are also programs such as Coalition for the Homeless, whose mission is to save “households each year from the trauma of homelessness.” They can offer grants to tenants who need the funding for their current rental housing. Initiatives like these give people the chance to resolve their financial situations without having to resort to leaving their property immediately. The Institute for Research of Poverty asserts that such affordable housing initiatives can be the most powerful and effective method to reduce poverty. 

A home for every homeless

It’s important to recognize the unique story behind each homeless individual that we see. Even though society is taking action to alleviate some of the causes of homelessness, the problem can be overlooked once housing programs have been launched. Taking the steps and initiative in assisting the homeless does not mean the problem has been entirely wiped away, despite how optimistic the media may portray it. We must be aware that preventing and addressing homelessness is a continuous process.  On the other hand, identifying the roots of homelessness can inspire more people to be proactive in driving eviction prevention programs or even lawyers to volunteer to participate in housing courts to help those who may be at risk of being without a home.

While we may not always be in a position to immediately help the homeless, there are certainly programs and projects we can embark on to help minimize homelessness and make sure people are living in their homes comfortably without fearing they have to leave. Whether you are a lawyer volunteering for a housing court to help tenants, a passionate civilian willing to help out at a local housing program, or someone donating their time and energy to provide resources to the homeless, every bit of help makes a difference.

Communities Build Tiny Homes for the Homeless

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In the city of Austin Texas, a group of people have come together and begun to build small mini pod homes for homelessness individuals in the city which has been deemed the Tiny House Movement. There are also homes that have even been called “Dignity Roller Pods” that were built by Gary Pickering, a man who was once homeless himself.

Around the world, there have been other cities that have taken homelessness into their own hands by creating these mini homes. Some of those places include Florida and Utah. These homes, which require volunteer effort, community support, and donations are being coined as the cheapest and fastest way to temporarily end homelessness.

According to The National Coalition for The Homeless 

  • The number of homeless families with children has increased significantly over the past decade.  Families with children are among the fastest growing segments of the homeless population. In its 2007 survey of 23 American cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families with children comprised 23% of the homeless population
  • On an average night in the 23 cities surveyed, 94 percent of people living on the streets were single adults, 4 percent were part of families and 2 percent were unaccompanied minors.
  • Seventy percent of those in emergency shelters were single adults, 29 percent were part of families and 1 percent were unaccompanied minors.  Of those in transitional housing, 43 percent were single adults, 56 percent were part of families, and 1 percent were unaccompanied minors.

I applaud this movement and the efforts put forth by this group of people. I love this idea and it’s extremely creative. However, I am also saddened. Is this the best America can do collectively to help provide shelter to the millions of homeless citizens within our borders? There are numerous services the homeless can benefit from, but due to the abundance of people who are in need, communities are having to take matters into their own hands to see a real change.

These small pods may help some homeless individuals, but what about food, clothing, warmth, being able to take care of their hygiene, or being able to cook healthy meals? What about the homeless families in need that may have more than just one person who yearns for shelter? They may have young babies or newborns that cannot fit in a small pod altogether. It takes more than just a temporary fix, and more Affordable Housing and Transitional Housing Programs are needed.

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