by Christina Fulsom
The pandemic and now a frigid winter storm bring to our awareness the people who struggle to stay alive while living on the streets of Tyler. While some emergency services can meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness, they do not provide what people need most: homes.
SHORT-TERM BANDAIDS, LONG-TERM SOLUTIONS
Diabetes, a better understood chronic illness, presents an enlightening parallel to homelessness. The short-term answer to a life-threatening blood glucose level of 50 mg/dL or under is to call 911. The long-term solution is to have healthy food, prescribed medication, and medical care to prevent another crisis. But what if you don’t have access to a doctor, healthy foods, and medication?
The 911 call for a person experiencing homelessness during a life-threatening pandemic or temperatures below freezing is finding a place where you decrease exposure to the virus or harsh winter conditions. Those are short-term buffers. The long-term solution is to have an affordable home and supportive services to prevent another crisis. But what if you don’t have access to a safe, decent and affordable home?
We can continue to pour resources into short-term fixes and avert our eyes when people experiencing homelessness increase in numbers and become “visible” in our rose-colored city. Or, we can focus on long-term solutions by investing in affordable housing. Consider the cost of an emergency room visit for a diabetic and the cost of public services for the person experiencing homelessness. Short-term fixes cost more, not just in money but in lives.
WHAT IS AFFORDABLE HOUSING?
The National Low Income Housing Coalition issues an annual report “Out of Reach” that documents the significant gap between renters’ wages and the cost of rental housing. The report’s central statistic, the housing wage, is an estimate of the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford a modest rental home at HUD’s fair market rent (FMR), without spending over 30% of his or her income on housing costs, the accepted standard of affordability. The Tyler Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) FMR for a two-bedroom home is $923. It would require a housing wage of $17.75 per hour to meet HUD’s affordability standard.
WHO NEEDS AFFORDABLE HOUSING?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) May 2019 Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates report, the most recent data available, there are 299,354 jobs in the Tyler MSA of which 116,924 (39%) pay less than the housing wage for a two-bedroom home. According to the BLS report, there are men and women in these occupations: substitute teachers; healthcare support including home health and personal care aids; food preparation and serving related occupations; building and grounds cleaning and maintenance; personal care and service; and sales-related occupations.
The lack of affordable housing has led to high rent burdens, overcrowding, and substandard housing. Residents are forced to become homeless and a growing number are at risk of becoming homeless. When cities and citizens decline opportunities to build affordable housing, they are keeping the very people who serve them from having a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home. The men and women who struggle with housing stability are in houses that cost too much, that make them sick and that isolate them from opportunities available in other parts of the city. Affordable housing creates a healthier environment for individuals and families that we know and interact with daily.
BUILDING AFFORDABLE HOUSING THAT IMPROVES QUALITY OF LIFE
The solution that will affect the largest number of individuals and families is to build affordable housing. Using housing as a platform for improving quality of life ensures brighter futures and reduces exploitation. Affordable housing can:
- Expand families’ choices of affordable rental homes in a broad range of communities.
- Ensure a mix of housing units from single resident occupancy to family homes.
- Construct green and healthy housing to improve home energy and resident health.
- Ensure communities are accessible and visitable by people with disabilities.
- Ensure communities have green spaces and playgrounds.
- Design environment giving attention to physical safety.
Affordable housing can ensure brighter futures by co-locating services. These include:
- Co-locating high-quality early learning programs to improve educational outcomes.
- Co-locating continuing education, career services, and after-school support to create a skilled workforce.
- Co-locating healthcare and wellness services to improve health outcomes.
- Co-locating case management and social services to improve stability.
- Creating better transportation to improve access to jobs and economic opportunities.
Affordable housing can avoid exploitation by changing the businesses that serve affordable housing communities. This includes:
- Replacing corner stores and dollar stores with fresh food markets to improve health outcomes.
- Replacing pay-day and auto-title lenders with credit unions and community-based fair loans to reduce exploitation.
The answer to homelessness? The primary answer to homelessness is homes.