October 10th was World Homeless Day, a day in which civil society all around the world advocates for social reform and organizes community events with the hope that they can improve the lives of those left behind, the victims of homelessness. To them, the UN Commission for Social Development has dedicated its 58th Session held in February from 10th to 19th.
Homelessness is a global phenomenon that affects thousands of people worldwide. Certain places, typically urban areas, tend to have higher rates of homelessness. One such example of a place with high rates of homelessness is New York. New York is an expensive place to live and contains a large population. As of January 2019, New York had an estimated 92,091 experiencing homelessness on any given day, as reported by Continuums of Care to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Of that Total, 15,901 were family households, 1,270 were Veterans, 2,978 were unaccompanied young adults (aged 18-24), and 7,229 were individuals experiencing chronic homelessness.
Public school data reported to the U.S. Department of Education during the 2016-2017 school year shows that an estimated 140,373 public school students experienced homelessness over the course of the year. Of that total, 6,068 students were unsheltered, 43,102 were in shelters, 2,623 were in hotels/motels, and 88,580 were doubled up.
The homeless people residing in New York City amounts to about 14% of the total homeless population in the United States.
This of course is a great social challenge, but it is a long-term problem which advocates for a short-term solution. Homelessness is a complex issue, not only because of varied socio-economic factors that lead to it, but because there is no agreed definitions of what it means to be homeless. Each person, organization, and even state has a different definition of homelessness, and its failure to come to a consensus, is prolonging the issue itself postponing any agreement for common action. However, at the 58th Session of the Commission for Social Development, the Nairobi Expert Group proposed a generally agreed upon definition of homelessness. They defined homelessness as “a condition where a person or household lacks habitable space with security of tenure, rights and ability to enjoy social relations, including safety. Homelessness is a manifestation of extreme poverty, and a failure of multiple systems and the implementation of human rights.” This definition encompasses the complete reality of being homeless. It is not simply someone living on a sidewalk and begging passersby for money or food. It refers to people who are out there in the world that are mostly left to fend for themselves often in manners that may compromise their own dignity as a human person and they have no safe space to call their own. Evidence of homelessness manifests itself in different forms and therefore cannot be analyzed through a narrow lens.
Although homelessness can strike anyone regardless of their background, certain groups of people are more prone to becoming homeless. In demographics terms, the homeless population in New York is as follow: “Approximately 57 percent of heads of household in shelters are African-American, 32 percent are Latin, 7 percent are white, less than 1 percent are Asian-American or Native American, and 3 percent are of unknown race/ethnicity.” Black and Latin people experience homelessness at a disproportionate rate, which supports the perception of race being a consistent impediment to those that are made out to be an “other.” No doubt, a significant amount of the New York homeless population struggles with mental illnesses and addictions and since they are unable to get the help that they need, the cycle is perpetuated. Homelessness is at its simplest definition, an extreme form of poverty. Poverty brings along struggles that perpetuate cycles and make it difficult for those that are in it to break free, such as “low-performing schools and high rates of violence, unemployment, substance abuse and teen pregnancy.” These side effects further exacerbate homelessness and make it an even more dangerous condition to be in.
The city's homeless population grew at a much faster rate than the nation's, which saw its first increase in seven years. The 0.7 percent rise was driven by a 9 percent spike in people living on the street, while the number of people in shelters or transitional housing dropped by 3 percent. New York and Los Angeles together are home to nearly a quarter of the nation's entire homeless population. The number of homeless people in Los Angeles spiked nearly 26 percent to more than 55,000, with three quarters of them living on the streets. The cause is that "The commonality in these places is rapidly rising rents and not rapidly rising income," (HUD Secretary Ben Carson). The New York City's homeless population has grown nearly 13 percent under Mayor Bill de Blasio despite his promise to build or preserve 300,000 affordable apartments is part of a plan to prevent more people from becoming homeless, his office says.
Despite differences in race, socioeconomic status, and education, homelessness is an issue that does not discriminate, and directly attacks the dignity of the human person. The 58th Session of the Commission for Social Development reminds people of what it means to have a home, “A home is one of the most basic human needs, without which a human being must live in precarious circumstances on the streets, under bridges, in slums, or on public lands, in unprotected and unsafe makeshift structures, with limited rights and few means to fulfill their potential” (CsocD58). A home is not just a place to store belongings; people need to remember that, next time they choose to ignore both the silent and verbalized cries for help, coming from their fellow humans that are living in deplorable conditions.