Homelessness Epidemics in the US
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, homelessness is defined as lacking housing, whether the person sleeps on the streets, in a shelter, or in the homes of friends and family members. Approximately 65 percent are found in homeless shelters, and the other 35 percent—just under 200,000—are found unsheltered on our streets (in places not intended for human habitation, such as sidewalks, parks, cars, or abandoned buildings).
Many of the individuals who lack permanent housing suffer from substance abuse or mental health disorders that prevent them from finding safe living conditions. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that over 50 percent of the individuals living in supportive housing programs had either a substance use disorder, a psychiatric disorder, or both. Mental illness and addiction interfere with an individual’s ability to build a satisfying, stable life. Without access to affordable treatment for substance abuse or psychiatric issues, many homeless men and women continue to descend deeper into a cycle of poverty, drug and alcohol use, and mental illness.
About 553,000 people were homeless at the end of 2018, and nearly one-quarter of homeless people live in California.
One such homeless encampment off a Hollywood freeway ramp is often littered with needles and trash and soaked in urine. Rats occasionally scamper through, and many fear the consequences. Infectious diseases are resurging in California and around the country, and are hitting homeless populations especially hard. Los Angeles recently experienced an outbreak of typhus—a disease spread by infected fleas on rats and other animals—in downtown streets.
Typhus is a bacterial infection that can cause a high fever, stomach pain, and chills but can be treated with antibiotics. Outbreaks are more common in overcrowded and trash-filled areas that attract rats.Officials briefly closed part of City Hall after reporting that rodents had invaded the building.
Hepatitis A is caused by a virus usually transmitted when people come in contact with the feces of infected people. Most people recover on their own, but the disease can be very serious for those with underlying liver conditions. There were 948 cases of hepatitis A in 2017 and 178 in 2018 and 2019, the state public-health department said. Twenty-one people have died as a result of the 2017–18 outbreak.
Hepatitis A, spread primarily through feces, infected more than 1,000 people in Southern California in the past two years. The disease also has erupted in New Mexico, Ohio, and Kentucky, primarily among people who are homeless or use drugs. Public-health officials and politicians are using terms like disaster and public-health crisis to describe the outbreaks, and they are warning that these diseases can easily jump beyond the homeless population.
During the hepatitis-A outbreak, public-health officials administered widespread vaccinations, cleaned the streets with bleach and water, and installed hand-washing stations and bathrooms near high concentrations of homeless people.But health officials and homeless advocates said more needs to be done, including helping people access medical and behavioral health care and affordable housing. “It really is unconscionable,” says Bobby Watts, the CEO of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, a policy and advocacy organization. “These are all preventable diseases.”
There are three main ways you can address homelessness:
- Prevention – Stopping people from becoming homeless in the first place.
- Emergency Response – Providing emergency supports like shelter, food and day programs, while someone is homeless.
- Housing, Accommodation, and Supports – The provision of housing and ongoing supports as a means of moving people out of homelessness.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMHSA