Over the last two decades, homelessness has grown as a social problem in our community. A confluence of events in the 80s and 90s — decreases in livable wage jobs, deinstitutionalization of people who experience mental illness, and severe reductions in federal funding for housing — have contributed to increases in our homeless population. In addition, Lincoln is experiencing significant problems with family violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and a lack of affordable housing. The bottom line — homelessness has become a major part of our local landscape.
Homelessness Has Many Faces
More than 1,800 people lack the ability to provide for their own housing on any given night in Lincoln, and close to 500 people are literally homeless (nowhere to go). It is reported that 1 in 4 women will suffer from some form of domestic violence in their lifetime, and an estimated 400 to 600 women and children are living in dangerous conditions. About 15% of domestic violence victims are men.
There are about 100 chronically homeless men and women in our city at any one time, and about 400 people who have been homeless at some time during at least 4 consecutive 6-month periods. Children and youth fall into this group at a higher rate than adults. Many of them are struggling with drugs and alcohol addiction. Without shelter, they stay under bridges, in parks, in cars, and in abandoned places around town.
There are growing numbers of families and individuals near or below the poverty line. They live one small incident away from losing their footing and falling into homelessness. People with mental health problems are not hospitalized unless their condition is severe, but may not have access to treatment. Those with untreated moderate issues are often cannot maintain employment, and end up living on the streets because of the lack of assistance.
Homelessness Costs Everyone
Each year, millions of tax dollars are spent caring for homeless people through public services like hospital emergency rooms, jails, mental health hospitals, detoxification programs, child protective services, and more. Cost studies around the country have shown that many homeless individuals and families can succeed and become self-sufficient if they get appropriate support. For instance, the use of emergency services by homeless people declines sharply when they obtain transitional or permanent housing. Solving the issue of homelessness in our city makes good sense (and cents). It will reduce the overall living costs in Lincoln and improve the lives of people living in difficult and desperate situations.
Ending Homelessness Requires Commitment
Ending homelessness in Lincoln requires a collective commitment by everyone. We need long-term, sustainable solutions that move us beyond simply managing episodes of homelessness as they occur. Our first commitment should be that every person living in Lincoln has a place to go for food and shelter, regardless of their status, gender, age, race or creed. We also need public commitment to resolving (or at least reducing) some of the leading causes of homelessness, such as domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and affordable housing. Finally, we need to examine the assumptions under which we have approached homelessness in the past, critically assess our activities and initiatives, and ultimately, to do business differently through changing systems, redirecting existing resources, and securing commitments for additional funding.