The unhoused: America’s refugees

April 30, 2022 5:00 am

An unhoused man sleeps outside the entrance to The Billings Gazette in downtown Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick | The Daily Montanan).

Who are unhoused people?

We all have various ideas of who is an unhoused person and how they became unhoused. These are based on what we see in the media, stories from friends and family, or what we see in the street. There simply is no such thing as the “typical” unhoused person. No one is completely safe from becoming unhoused and every community has unhoused people. As Hannah Arendt, the renowned expert on human rights stated so perceptively, a refugee is someone who has been deprived “of their place in the world.”

An unhoused person is also someone who has been deprived “of their place in the world.”

Housing is a human right. We shouldn’t use the term “homeless,” but rather “unhoused.” The label of “homeless” has derogatory connotations. It implies that one is “less than,” and it undermines self-esteem and progressive change. The term “unhoused,” instead, has a profound personal impact upon those in insecure housing situations. It implies that there is a moral and social assumption that everyone should be housed in the first place.

Poverty is the main source of being unhoused, bringing despair, grinding people down to no other alternative in their living situation. Poverty is caused by economic systems that deny their benefits to large portions of society. The personal circumstances are many. 

Some are veterans who on returning from deployment suffer who from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental problems who simply cannot cope with day to day stress. They lose their employment, destroy the fabric of their families, turn to alcohol, drugs, and/or other dangerous activities in an attempt to self-medicate and alleviate their pain and suffering. On any given day, more than 165 Montana veterans are unhoused, and more than 13,400 Montana veterans live in homes with one or more major problem of quality, crowding, or cost.

Domestic abuse, family breakup, and family violence merge to create physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that culminates in a crisis of being unhoused. More than 20% of unhoused youth end up being victims of human trafficking, and 17% are sex trafficked. Many unhoused youth, especially, but not only, girls are engaged in “survival sex” to meet basic needs such as food and housing. 

Public school data has shown that more than 4,700 public school students in Montana were unhoused during the course of the school year, with nearly 10% unsheltered and alone, more than 300 in shelters, nearly 400 living in hotels or motels and more than 3,000 doubled up living with relatives or friends. This instability of being unhoused clearly has an impact on academic performance, social, and mental well-being leading to depression and possible suicide.

Mental illness is another source of being unhoused. On any given day in the U.S. over 250,000 mentally ill people and over 140,000 seriously mentally ill people are unhoused, with over 31% of them living on the street. Lack of treatment is the number one cause of being unhoused among the mentally ill. 

With no home, people spend the day looking for a hot meal, a place to rest, somewhere to go to the bathroom with dignity, and a quiet, hopefully dry, place to sleep. Getting a drink of water can be challenging. And getting a job is nearly impossible with no permanent address, no clean clothing, no bathing, no privacy, and no personal self-esteem. 

Nearly everyone is simply one accident, medical crisis, or economic down-turn away from forces that might change your circumstances into being unhoused. The average person in the U.S. will be on the streets within eight weeks of losing employment or other income. 

Being unhoused cannot be solved at the federal or state level, it must be solved by each community, using public and private resources. Federal and state funds can be a great help. However, we need to address being unhoused with the same care and compassion we are expressing in our efforts to help the refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine, with an outpouring of community support. We need to show the same sensitivity, care, and empathy to produce real answers which restore the dignity of these people who are living on the street, or in shelters, or couch surfing with relatives and friends.

After all, they are “America’s refugees.”


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