4 Things to Know About America's Homeless Community and the One Thing You Should Do to Help Now

Outraged by the recent fatal shooting of an L.A. homeless man? Here’s how you can support your homeless community.

A makeshift memorial for a homeless man known by the name "Africa" after he was shot and killed by Los Angeles police on March 1. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

Mar 2, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Disturbing video footage of Los Angeles police officers shooting and killing a homeless man on skid row made national headlines Sunday night, leading to outcry over the death.

Officers say the man, known on the streets as "Africa," reached for one of their weapons. Advocates who help the vulnerable people in the neighborhood that has become an epicenter for the city's homeless told the Los Angeles Times that he helped them clean at a local shelter but sometimes acted out.

(Infographic: Courtesy Sheltered Status)

This event has led to a call from Los Angeles residents to rein in police brutality, and while there are obvious concerns over trigger-happy cops, understanding and curbing homelessness within the United States could go a long way in such instances.

What Homelessness Really Looks Like

Adult males make up the largest portion of the homeless community, with men being about 63 percent of the homeless population and the average age being between 31 and 50. Nearly 40 percent of all homeless people are white, and another 40 percent are black, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Poverty and lack of affordable housing are common factors in homelessness, but mental illness plays a strong role too.

“A lot of the people on our streets are suffering from untreated mental illness, and there is no place for them to go,” Georgia Berkovich, spokesperson for Los Angeles’ Midnight Mission, told TakePart. An estimated 30 percent of homeless people have mental health problems, and 50 percent struggle with substance abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported.

Homelessness by the Numbers

(Infographic: Courtesy CBPP.org)

The count of America's homeless people depends to some extent on whom you ask. The Department of Housing and Urban Development reports an 11 percent decrease in homelessness from 2007 to 2014, a figure that is based on an annual street count in which volunteers canvass streets and count people in shelters. In 2014, the count found 578,424 homeless people in America. The overall number is down, but places such as Washington, D.C.; New York; and Massachusetts report an increase of as much as 45 percent in the past seven years. Shelters and food services remain in high demand.

“For the last three years in a row, we have served more than a million meals each year, and we haven’t seen numbers like this since the Great Depression,” said Berkovich, adding that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority's 2015 count’s initial numbers look to be declining.

What may be of most concern is the most vulnerable population: children. That figure has doubled from 2005 to 2013, with 1.2 million American children living in shelters, on the street, in motels, or couch surfing, according to the Department of Education.

(Infographic: Courtesy National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty)

The Reality of Affordable Housing

Anyone who’s tried to find an apartment in recent years knows that rent is only getting higher, as landlords have no real incentive to keep costs down. Approximately 12 million American households spend as much as half their total income to pay their rent or mortgage, according to HUD. Rising costs have forced people out of their homes and put many at risk of becoming homeless. Permanent supportive housing is the solution to homelessness, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority spokesperson George McQuade III told TakePart last month. Yet federal funding to support these programs has reduced dramatically in recent years, with HUD’s HOME Program for low-income housing cut down from $1.8 billion in 2010 to $900 million this year.

Kicked While They're Down

In a misguided attempt to discourage homelessness—as if it were a choice—cities across the nation have criminalized the very act of being homeless. Almost a quarter of U.S. cities ban public begging or panhandling, and 34 percent ban camping in public, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Just sitting down or falling asleep can get you in trouble in 18 percent of American cities. Altercations between officers and mentally ill people like Africa are often a result of such legislation, with police officers harassing people who keep their tents up for too long. Not only does this system fail to address any of the root causes of homelessness, but court fees, detention, and a criminal record contribute to the cycle of poverty.

How to Help

There’s no one single solution that will end homeless throughout the U.S. While legislative changes are necessary to make the biggest impact, there are many things everyday citizens can do to help right now. The first step doesn’t involve any money or time, just an open mind.

“We’re working hard not to call our community 'the homeless' because that takes away the humanity—it dehumanizes them. When we use ‘homeless,’ it’s an adjective,” said Berkovich.

Instead of regarding people forced to live on the street as illegal vagrants or transients, treating these individuals with care and compassion can go a long way toward ending the stigma that hinders finding housing and employment.

“Nobody has ever one day dreamed that they would be homeless.” Berkovich continued. “To think that it is ‘us and them’ is ignorant. Any of us could end up homeless.”