According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2013, 610,042 people were homeless in the United States. Thirty-five percent of them were not living in designated shelters. Those at highest risk include the unemployed, homeowners in foreclosure, people just out of prison and youth who are too old for foster care. While there has been a 16-percent decline in homelessness since 2010, the issue continues to be critical at the local, state and national levels. The combination of high-cost housing and low-paying jobs makes solving the problem difficult.

Defining Homelessness

The U.S. government uses a definition of homelessness to specify who is eligible for tax-funded services. People who sleep in a homeless facility, use a government-funded voucher for a sleeping facility or sleep somewhere not designated for humans fall under the governmental definition. Because of this, a homeless person who stays with a friend for a night would be ineligible for services. Cities and agencies interested in helping the homeless population with a permanent solution may be limited by the definition. Similarly, the homeless population is faced with governmental language that may prohibit access to needed services.

Economic Impact

People who are struggling to get by often spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Political leaders have enacted government-funded interventions to address the need for affordable housing. For example, in 2009, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program included $1.5 billion as a proactive measure for potential homelessness connected to the recession. Politicians and special interest groups worked together to address the issue. More than 700,000 individuals with the potential to be homelessness were aided by this program.

Influencing Policies

The Federal budget includes funds that help people with housing concerns. Influencing the development of these policies is a main agenda item of political action groups focused on the issue. For example, the National Alliance to End Homelessness reviews current policies and lobbies legislators for change. Interest groups engage the public to persuade Congress to institute grants and increase capacity of funds to help special populations impacted by homelessness. For example, December 2013, The Alliance organized a call-in day to encourage funding support for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Legal Implications

The public’s general discomfort with the homeless population puts political pressure on city leaders to make the problem disappear. August 2013, a law was instituted in Columbia, South Carolina, that make homelessness illegal. This means that homeless people were jailed if found on the streets. The criminalization of homelessness may clean up city streets but homeless people are left without a place to go. Questions about systemic solutions to homelessness remain an issue for political leaders. More than housing needs, this may include rehabilitation services, jobs, training programs and medical care.