One hundred years ago, things were very different in the United States.
In 1914, polio was epidemic, World War 1 was nearly upon us, the most common mode of transportation was horse and buggy, and housing conditions for millions were deplorable. It took another 20 years before affordable housing and home ownership became a focus with the National Housing Act of 1934. The Housing Act of 1937 created local public housing agencies (housing authorities) to improve living conditions for all low-income families. These laws created a vision for our country, but the road to get there is proving long and hard.
In the 1930s, few people had indoor plumbing or electricity, 1 in 4 people was unemployed, and thousands of people lived in shanty towns. Families that did have homes often had several generations crowded together in an apartment or house. Most children stopped formal schooling in the eighth grade and went to work.
By the 1950s, life had changed. Nearly every home had electricity, indoor plumbing, and bathrooms. Jobs became plentiful and kids completed high school.
We truly have come a long way. Now, 99 percent of our population lives in housing that is safe and decent, with access to transportation and food. Still life is not perfect or affordable for everyone. In 2005, the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness was adopted in Thurston County. Yet, according to the annual Homeless Census, homelessness has increased by 36 percent since the 2006 baseline year. The number of homeless students (in kindergarten through 12th grade) has increased by 142 percent. Without intervention, many of these homeless youths could become chronically homeless adults.
While government-funded programs help many in need, many fall through the cracks — not because they don’t work hard enough or aren’t skilled enough. During the 2014 Homeless Census, 39 percent of respondents cited job loss or economic reasons for becoming homeless. Another 19 percent were homeless because of a family crisis or break-up. Lower on the list of reasons for homelessness were alcohol and substance abuse (10 percent), mental illness (10 percent), and crime conviction (3 percent).
The homeless census also found that 33 percent were members of a homeless family. This figure does not fully represent the total number or percentage of homeless families in our community. Homeless families tend to avoid shelters to prevent potentially negative experiences for their children, out of fear of losing their children, and to avoid separating family members to conform to shelter regulations.
I share these statistics with you to highlight our need to keep working toward ending homelessness — not just for those who are homeless, but for the health and well-being of our community. Studies show that homelessness costs tax payers and their communities more in hospitalization, medical treatment, incarceration, police intervention, and emergency shelter costs than permanent housing coupled with supportive services.
If that’s the case, shouldn’t permanent supportive housing be one of our goals? Such housing would be for those who cannot compete economically, where more than 50 percent of their monthly income can be eaten up paying for a safe roof over their heads. Those needing such housing include people with physical and mental disabilities, those with chemical dependency issues, and those with combinations of those problems.
So, are we there yet? Clearly, we are not. The Thurston Thrives initiative envisions a community where affordable, adequate and safe housing is available for all. It is a community-developed and vetted vision that will require dedication, perseverance and partnership among the public, private and nonprofit sectors.
But individuals, too, can play a role. We can volunteer at, or donate to, a shelter. We can help build houses through Habitat for Humanity. We can provide job training. We can tutor or mentor homeless children. And we can advocate to end homelessness.
We are not there yet, but I can see where we need to go. Can you?