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  • Eileen Zilch

Causes of Homelessness

Updated: Mar 26, 2019

The drivers behind homelessness can vary depending on stage of life, gender, geography, support systems, and whether the factors are temporary or permanent. But across all demographics, the leading two causes of homelessness are insufficient income and lack of affordable housing.

In 2012, over 10 million renters in the US were identified as Extremely Low Income (ELI) as classified by HUD. Individuals that fall into this category earn 30% or less of the Area Median Income and/or are at the Federal poverty level. In 2012, less than 6 million affordable rental units were actually available to those 10 million people identified as ELI. After paying for rent and utilities, 75% of ELI households end up with less than half of their income to pay for necessities such as food, medicine, transportation and childcare. This creates a precarious situation. When monthly rent expense is significantly more than 30% of income, any change to monthly expenses, a major illness, any job disruption or major life event (like a death or divorce) can be the tipping point into homelessness. For many individuals classified as ELI, earnings are at or just above minimum wage rates.

Chronic homelessness may originate from the factors described above, but is often exacerbated by either mental illness (including PTSD in veterans) or alcohol/substance abuse or both, and the lack of needed services. And for women in particular, domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness.

For youth, there are additional factors which lead to homelessness. Youth become homeless when they have no place to call home. This can result from absent parents (including those who become incarcerated), aging out of foster care (at age 18 for most kids), or from being kicked out of their home. There is no one able and willing to provide help or a home to these kids.

I was shocked to learn that in my town, Howell, Michigan, there are currently 42 kids who are homeless and attending Howell High School. In a study compiled by graduate students at the University of Michigan in early 2018, Michigan was found to have one of the largest populations of homeless students in the US. Michigan ranked 6th in the US for the most homeless students in the 2015-6 school year. While homelessness is high in the urban areas of Michigan, over 70% of homeless students were enrolled in schools outside of Southeast Michigan, the state’s most populous region. The top 10 school districts with the highest percentage of homeless students were all located in the northern and central regions of the state.

There is still much to be done to eliminate homelessness across the US and in Michigan. While both urban and rural poverty are clear contributors to homelessness, unexpected life events can push individuals without a support system into homelessness. At Community Catalysts, our goal is to contribute significantly to developing and building additional affordable housing units across Michigan and to providing the job training and additional services that homeless individuals need to break the cycle of homelessness in their lives and in the lives of their family members.

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