The Homelessness Problem Is About to Get Much Worse

Rose Bak

The ongoing pandemic threatens to throw tens of thousands of people onto the streets — including children, veterans, and the elderly.
Photo by Brandi Ibrao on Unsplash

In cities all around the country you see them everywhere: people who are homeless. Camping in parks. Lined up for shelter. Sleeping in their cars.

Most urban areas have been experiencing increasingly high rates of homelessness and instability over the last ten years. According to the National Alliance to End Homeless, on any given night over 567,000 people are homeless, and an estimated 950,000 people were in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

The homeless population includes veterans, children, LGBTQ youth, survivors of domestic violence, and increasingly, the elderly. Members of the BIPOC community, i.e. those who are black, indigenous, and people of color, are disproportionately represented in the homeless population.

As bad as the problem is right now, homelessness is likely to explode over the next year.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will force tens of thousands of people out of their homes and has the potential to impact our communities for years to come. The next national crisis will be homelessness.

An estimated 40% of households have not paid their rent for one or more of the previous nine months. While many are protected by statewide eviction moratoriums right now, eventually those protections will expire and unless a relief package is approved by Congress or the states, all of that back rent will come due. With more and more businesses closing and unemployment increasing rapidly, people will have no way to pay their back rent.

Many other renters and homeowners have been able to cobble together the funds to keep their payments current, using emergency housing assistance programs, spending down savings, cashing in retirement accounts, or going without food or medicine.

None of these situations are sustainable.

As protections and emergency programs expire, we are looking at the potential for widespread homelessness that this nation hasn’t seen since the Great Depression. Homeless service systems are already struggling, with the number of people seeking services much greater than available funds. 

The safety net isn’t nearly big enough to help those who are homeless right now. It may completely break down as homelessness increases.

The implications of increasing homelessness are dire:

· Evictions, foreclosures, and other collection debts can stay on someone’s credit report for as long as seven years, impacting their ability to secure new housing, finance cars, or even get a job.

· People living on the street or in their cars are subjected to great violence, including sexual assault, generally starting within 72 hours of becoming homeless.

· The life span of a person experiencing homelessness can be decreased by as many as twenty years or more due to trauma, brain injury, insufficient hygiene, and inability to manage chronic health conditions.

· People who spend time on the streets are more likely to develop anxiety, substance abuse disorders, addiction, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

· Children who experience even a few months of homelessness can quickly fall one or more grade levels behind their peers.

Now is the time for the entire country to come together to prevent homelessness. History has shown us that this can be done. The country built tens of thousands of subsidized housing units in just a few short years as we emerged from the Great Depression and into World War II.

A national commitment to build affordable housing at that scale may be the only way to keep our citizens stably housed.

Our first priority should be to keep people who are housed from losing their homes. Rent and mortgage assistance, grants, and utility assistance that is widely available and has as few requirements as possible can help people avoid eviction or foreclosure.

But the assistance needs to be comparable to the problem. The average rent in the U.S. is $1,468 and the average mortgage payment is $1,500. The $1200 stimulus checks people received this spring, while helpful, did not pay for even a full month’s housing cost for most people.

Our next priority should be to get people who have lost their housing into new housing as soon as possible. By decreasing the amount of time someone is homeless, we minimize the severe and traumatic effects of being homeless.

Rapid rehousing relies on having sufficient affordable housing available. By assisting people with deposits and initial rent payments, and helping people get utilities turned on, people can move back into housing more quickly. It’s important that we help prevent those who have become situationally homeless from becoming chronically homeless.

Finally, we need bold interventions to help people who have been living on the street for six months or more. This population has been particularly hard hit during the pandemic as services have closed and fear of disease and violence has increased.

No one is homeless because they choose to be. When you’re homeless, every day is the worst day of your life.

Even those who have been homeless for many years can be successfully transitioned into housing. If we meet people where they are and housing and services are offered from someone they have a trusting relationship with, people will accept help to move out of homelessness and be able to stabilize into permanent housing.

Help may look like transitional housing, such as tiny house villages or repurposed hotels. Once people are stabilized into housing, they can access services and move towards longer-term housing. Assistance like payment of application fees and deposits, assistance clearing up credit reports, assistance with rent payments, and connecting people with supplies to set up a household like furniture, housewares and linens set people up for success.

People who have been homeless the longest may also benefit from behavioral health counseling, medication management, addictions treatment, and life skills training to transition from the kinds of behaviors that keep a person safe on the streets to the kinds of behaviors that keep someone stably housed.

The homelessness crisis can seem overwhelming, and it will get significantly worse as a result of the pandemic if we don’t take immediate action. Everyone thinks that homelessness is the result of bad personal choices until it happens to them. Then you realize: almost everyone is a few emergencies away from becoming homeless.

The good news is that we know what works: housing that is affordable for everyone, and services for those that need them. The question is: are we willing to make a commitment to get the job done?

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR

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