In the February issue of Governing, I have a story about the rise of family homelessness in the United States. Over the past couple years, while the aggregate number of homeless people has stayed pretty steady, the number of homeless families has gone up -- a 9 percent increase in 2008, the latest year for which data is available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But how much is the face of homelessness really changing?
It's easy to get the impression from the media -- heck, maybe even from my story, although I hope not -- that the "new face" of homelessness is an educated, lower-middle-class suburban woman with two kids. And it's true that, thanks to the recession, there's been a shift in that direction.
But at least one person I talked to, Ellen Bassuk, the founder and president of The National Center on Family Homelessness, said that's a really misleading stereotype. "It's false," she told me, adding that the "new face" of homelessness is really more about media hype and economic fears. "Listen, the recession is scary. Home foreclosures are scary. There are a lot of people who think homelessness could happen to them. But most homeless people today are still extremely poor."
In other words, there are a lot of steps between losing your home and becoming homeless. That suburban woman will try doubling up in an apartment with another struggling family, or moving in with relatives, before she becomes "homeless."
And one homelessness advocate I spoke with said cities shouldn't even concern themselves with the shifting demographics of the homeless population year-to-year. For instance, for the past several years, most cities (and certainly the federal government) have focused on addressing the problems of chronically homeless individuals. Now that family homelessness is becoming more evident, cities are putting more money into fighting that problem.
That's a flawed approach, said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "Is it enough to just shift money back to homeless families? You're still just moving money around within these pie slices. What you should be doing is rethinking the whole thing. The communities that are really ahead of the curve are the ones that are not dividing up the pie. They're saying, 'We're going to solve homelessness as a "total problem." ' "