We ignore homelessness

One homeless person has died already while living on the streets as winter arrives. On Thanksgiving weekend, another homeless man died when someone allegedly set fire to his tent, which was part of a homeless camp where 15 to 20 people live in the Phoenix Hill neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Louisville police issued citations to 21 homeless people for sleeping outside the Wayside Christian Mission.

Louisville commuters who take Jefferson Street into downtown from The East End are reminded every day of the lives that are being wasted and uncared for, as Louisville’s homeless population congregates under the Interstate 65 overpass, outside of the shelter. Somehow, somewhere between the overpass and getting to the office, we forget the mass of people who will be outside all day and all night.

Somehow we forget, even as Topgolf brings community outrage. Where is that same energy for ending homelessness in Possibility City?

Homelessness is a solvable problem.

In 2017, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that a little over 550,000 people were experiencing homelessness in America. In Kentucky, that number was just over 4,000, with Louisville and Lexington each accounting for about a quarter of that population.

Last year, Huffington Post posted an infographic titled, “U.S. Could End Homelessness With Money Used To Buy Christmas Decorations” — $20 billion.

According to a 2012 report from U.S. Housing and Urban Development, $20 billion per year would end homelessness — while other estimates are as low as $6 billion, or just over $10,000 per person. 

In Central Florida, each homeless person costs taxpayers an average of $31,000 per year due to costs associated with law enforcement, jail stays, hospital and medical emergencies and psychiatric help, a study showed. The state could provide permanent housing to the chronically homeless, with case managers, for about $10,000, the study said. “Housing even half of the region’s chronically homeless population would save taxpayers $149 million during the next decade — even allowing for 10 percent to end up back on the streets again,” The Orlando Sentinel reported.

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What we know for certain is that it is more expensive to treat chronic homelessness than it is to cure it.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness works with 19 federal agencies specifically to end homelessness, and it concluded: “Supportive housing has been shown to help people permanently stay out of homelessness, improve health conditions and, by reducing their use of crisis services, lower public costs. Numerous studies have shown that it is cheaper to provide people experiencing chronic homelessness with supportive housing than to have them remain homeless.”

Cities are wasting money by living with homelessness. And by trying to hide it, the system ends up creating criminals out of regular people who are facing personal crises.It allows children to fail in school, leaving them stuck in the cycle of homelessness and government dependence, and it absolutely leads to loss of life.

We choose to not make homelessness a priority because it is easy to ignore them.

The homeless population is disproportionately people of color, LGBTQ youth, people with mental and physical disabilities — including veterans — and those who are poor and without legal or political influence. 

We see that imbalance in political influence in Louisville when developers offer multi-million dollar projects, but negotiate their way out of local zoning laws that require a percentage of new housing units to include affordable housing. A dwindling amount of affordable housing — nationwide — is a main driver of homelessness. It’s easy to ignore the homeless when you’re looking at the new $50-million development and the “revitalized” Main Street.

That’s what happens when the city “cleans up” all the belongings of people who are homeless — sweeping away any signs of their existence. Then, the rest of us can go on forgetting people live under the overpass.

So, over holidays, as we lie back and watch basketball and bowl games — millionaire athletes and coaches — take a moment to look over at the Christmas tree and realize we could end homelessness for the amount we spend on Christmas decorations.

Consider making a 2019 resolution to reassess our priorities. •

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