To give a donation to our housing programs so we can continue providing the resources individuals and families need who are experiencing a crisis, please visit our secure donation page on the CHS website.
For the second year in a row, homelessness has increased in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. On any given night, over 550,000 people are sleeping on the street, or if they are lucky enough to secure a bed, sleeping in a shelter or transitional housing. 20 percent of these individuals are children under the age of 18 and 15 percent are veterans. These statistics do not necessarily include all the youth who are couch surfing, since that depends on those individuals reporting that, so this overall number could potentially be larger than what the Point In Time (PIT) annual count is able to capture.
During one year, it’s estimated that about 1.5 million people will experience homelessness, whether that’s sleeping on the street, staying at a shelter, or staying temporarily with family and friends. And in the shadow of the early 2019 government shutdown, it became clear how many millions of Americans are one paycheck away from financial disaster—almost half of us.
Before we get into it, let’s establish a few definitions for key words moving forward:
Homeless: Individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, meaning:
- Has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not meant for human habitation;
- Is living in a publicly or privately operated shelter designated to provide temporary living arrangements (including congregate shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charitable organizations or by federal, state and local government programs).
- Is exiting an institution where (s)he has resided for 90 days or less and who resided in an emergency shelter or place not meant for human habitation immediately before entering that institution.
Transitional Shelter: refers to a supportive – yet temporary – type of accommodation that is meant to bridge the gap from homelessness to permanent housing by offering structure, supervision, support (for addictions and mental health, for instance), life skills, and in some cases, education and training.
Emergency Shelter: A place for people to live temporarily when they cannot live in their previous residence, similar to homeless shelters. The main difference is that an emergency shelter typically specializes in people fleeing a specific type of situation, such as natural or man-made disasters, domestic violence, or victims of sexual abuse. A more minor difference is that people staying in emergency shelters are more likely to stay all day, except for work, school, or errands, while homeless shelters usually expect people to stay elsewhere during the day, returning only to sleep or eat. Emergency shelters sometimes facilitate support groups, and/or provide meals.
According to the 2018 Point in Time (PIT) counts, there are close to 1,200 people experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County. While the number of single persons has decreased since the previous year’s counts, an increase in families depending on emergency shelters has increased by 16 percent. Of the entire homeless population, about 7 percent of homeless persons were unsheltered on the night of the count, meaning that they were living in a place not meant for human habitation, such as on the street, in an underpass, in a park, in a car, or in an abandoned building.
Here are a few more details:
- Eighty-six percent of the households counted were adult-only households.
- Fourteen percent of households had at least one child under the age of 18. Of these children, 59% were school age (five to 17 years old) while the remaining 41 percent were four years old or younger.
- 63% of the homeless population is male. In fact, there is a greater proportion of males than females in all homeless project types in the count. In unsheltered situations, males accounted for 88 percent of the population. The largest race represented was black/African American, followed by white, and a mix of two or more races.
So how did we get here?
The rising costs of both housing and healthcare primarily. But low-wage jobs (at $7.25 an hour—the federal minimum rage right now in Pennsylvania—an individual would have to work 106 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh), home foreclosures (over the past 10 years foreclosures have increased by 30%), and decreased funding in social programs have had adverse effects on our population. Those who were hugging the line of being vulnerable now are, and those already vulnerable have become desolate. Suddenly more individuals and families are having to make incredibly tough decisions—many with negative consequences. We all know how unpredictable life can be. Even with a steady income, an emergency can set any one of us back and shift priorities. But when your low-income finances are already spread thin and budgets are incredibly tight, an emergency—the family car breaks down, an accident occurs, a job is lost or hours are cut—causes life to crumble. Crises form. Critical needs that are not meant to be prioritized suddenly need prioritized, forcing people to go into survival mode. How do you choose food over medication? Bills over daycare when you need to keep working? Meals are skipped and jobs are lost. If things become so bad that homelessness is the next step, mental health is impacted. The chances of the person forming an addition on drugs or alcohol in order to cope with their situation increases. Then there’s also depression, the third most leading cause of hospitalization in the United States today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says up to half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point during their lives, which is already creating a strain on hospital and health systems. If you do suffer from a mental illness, the chances of becoming incarcerated increase by 25%. And depending on the crime, can further increase the likelihood that you’ll re-enter homelessness once released since having a criminal background can create additional barriers to accessing public housing, section 8 vouchers, and securing an entrusting landlord. In so many words, the barriers to accessing services and housing dramatically increase when you are low-income or homeless. There is so much more working against you than securing a steady paycheck.
How do we move forward?
Investing in permanent supportive housing programs is an answer. A chronically homeless individual costs taxpayers over $35,000 per year to cover the expenses that arise from emergency department services, inpatient hospital stays, psychiatric centers, detoxification programs, and jail (which is where most homeless individuals are most likely to end up). To fund supportive housing, taxpayers only invest $12,000 a year per individual. Not only is the cheaper, but it includes positive, long-term results—permanent supportive housing has shown to reduce chronic homelessness by 30 percent.
CHS Housing Assistance programs range from emergency shelter to permanent housing programs, and that’s because our clients range in need. Sometimes it’s just catching someone up with their rent or utility arrears so they can apply for Section 8. Other times it’s paying for moving costs into safer housing for victims of trafficking or domestic violence. We accommodate for needs that are not always supported throughout the County, such as LBGTQIA+ individuals, those who identify as transgender, families, people with disabilities who require wheelchair access, and those with animal companions. Our goal is to meet people where they are at so they have the best possible chance of successfully staying housed. With that, staff focus on Housing First and Harm Reduction initiatives.
What’s essential is providing support from all direction, each step of the way. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that over 50 percent of individuals living in supportive housing programs have either a substance abuse disorder, a psychiatric disorder, or both. It’s impractical and unrealistic to hang lofty goals over the heads of those currently experiencing this or any crisis. It takes time to adjust to housing if you’ve been living on the streets, time to stabilize your life enough that you can apply for and maintain a job, and time to trust the community that turned its back on you for so long. Research conducted HUD found that the typical household in assisted housing now stays for about 6 years. The length of stay varies by household type. For example, elderly households stay longer, about 9 years, while nonelderly families with children stay about 4 years. Our first step with clients is to find the appropriate housing and landlord for their needs. We partner with over 200 landlords within Allegheny County and build those relationships based on transparency. It’s not going to do our clients any good if we house them in an area that doesn’t have easy access to resources, with a landlord who will treat them with stigma, and in housing that is not suitable for their family size or mental/physical needs. Then the support begins. Aside from untreated mental illnesses, other causes for low-income and eventual homelessness comes from the quality of community and education available in the neighborhoods people grow up. Because of this, a Community Support Specialist (CSS) assigned to an individual or family will help with things like budgeting, prioritizing tasks, and assisting with job applications. CSS’s also check on the emotional well-being of their client, making sure they are in a good headspace to get through the week, whether or not they are getting enough sleep to successfully maintain their household and relationships, and if the level of support they began with is still appropriate to continue with as they inch towards independent living. With this support, 93% of clients remain in their housing units after exiting our program. We kept 799 adults and children off the street in 2019, along with helped 12 veterans avoid becoming homelessness, and safely housed 117 chronically homeless individuals.
But housing assistance programs like ours require funding. Housing Assistance is the largest piece of the CHS program expense pie, requiring over $4.5 million dollars each year. And because most of this money comes from government grants, the flexibility to support the unique needs of individuals and families over long lengths of time is not always an available option, depending on the program. While resources across Allegheny County are decreased (such as utility assistance programs) the dependency on CHS becomes greater. That’s why it’s essential our funding maintains. Lives are literally at risk without it.
Our #Retirethesign hashtag is just the beginning to what we hope to be continued focus on the graduates from our programs. Each quarter, we host graduation parties for clients who move on to independent living. It’s a chance for clients to relax, have some lunch, and reflect on their journey with CHS. While it’s hard for many to look back on what they were going through and the situations they were in when they were initially referred to CHS, it’s an opportunity for clients to realize their strength in being able to overcome those obstacles.
To give a donation to our housing programs so we can continue providing the resources individuals and families need who are experiencing a crisis (like new bedsheets, pillows, pots and pans) please visit our secure donation site. You can also purchase items from our Amazon wish list, which will ship those items for free directly to our office at 2525 Liberty Avenue.
Thank you for being a friend of CHS,
Sarah Nesbella, Development Specialist