The affordable housing crisis in America today is as much a social issue as it is an economic one. Housing insecurity today manifests itself in many different guises, but so does the social worker’s response to it.
As bridge-builders in society, social workers can do quite a lot to alleviate the pain and suffering of those without a decent residential arrangement. Their main responsibility is to help individuals and families secure their essential needs and fundamental rights, and good housing is at the top of the list.
Social workers know that access to quality housing underpins a healthy, socially active existence, and they do quite a lot to secure people’s access to it. They act as liaisons between those in need of housing and housing service stakeholders. They assuage trauma from housing challenges by providing access to mental health care and emotional support.
In the following sections, this article peels back the curtains on the impact of housing insecurity on individuals and our society writ large, and then examines what social workers are doing to turn the tide for the better.
The growing problem of homelessness in America
Homelessness has been on the rise over the past few decades. The most recent homelessness survey found that the homeless population has increased in the past seven years alone. According to the survey, around 582,000 people, including about 58,000 families, currently do not have a place to call home. Homelessness is housing deprivation at its worst, and those numbers do not include people living in subpar or inappropriate housing arrangements.
Homelessness can be defined as “lacking a regular nighttime residence or having a primary nighttime residence that is a temporary shelter or other place not designed for sleeping”.
People experiencing housing insecurity to any degree are exposed to all sorts of risks, from physical illness to mental instability, street violence and a range of social issues.
Governments at all levels have instituted many programs for the homeless, but hardly any seem enough to stem the growing tide. These programs are often plagued with a host of issues, from insufficient funding to incredibly long wait times, and failure to cover the most vulnerable demographics. For instance, a federal government rent assistance program commissioned in 2013 for low-income people ruled out over 75% of eligible beneficiaries, while keeping those qualified on the waiting list for years.
The problem seems hydra-headed, with every solution revealing more underlying issues. Researchers continue to probe the problem of housing insecurity from different angles, establishing the relationship between various factors in the interplay. Several studies are currently underway in search of ways to mitigate the social, physical and psychological impacts of housing insecurity.
The following sections delve deeper into what studies so far have revealed about homelessness.
The main types of housing insecurity
Housing insecurity comes in many different forms and shapes, and that exacerbates the effectiveness of one-size-fits-all housing programs.
The types of housing insecurity that social workers mainly focus on include:
- Urban and rural homeless
This is an umbrella term for homelessness resulting from poverty and lack of decent accommodation. In urban areas, this tends to occur mostly among ethnic minorities and immigrant populations. In rural areas, the homeless population seems to be more of a mixed bag, with unlikely demographics like married white women leading the charts.
Rural homeless populations are more vulnerable to physical and mental illness than their urban counterparts, as access to medical and public amenities is severely limited in rural areas.
- Chronically homeless
This refers to people teetering on homelessness. They have fallen in and out of homelessness multiple times over the past few years and are less likely to maintain a good accommodation — when they have it — for a significant amount of time.
The US Office of National Drug Control Policy says the chronically homeless make up a significant proportion of people with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.
Homelessness is prevalent among veterans. Nearly one in 10 homeless people is a military veteran, and nearly 80% of them are grappling with a mental health or substance abuse problem. While there are a lot of socioeconomic and medical programs for veterans, they are often plagued with long wait times and insufficient funding.
However, social workers have stepped in to fill the void, catering to the health and lifestyle needs of veterans on many levels.
- Housing instability
This group comprises everyone who cannot claim to have a decent, affordable place to stay for the next few years. This includes people struggling to pay their rent, living in overcrowded spaces or moving frequently.
People with housing instability are often as vulnerable as the homeless to physical and mental issues.
The impact of housing insecurity on individuals and communities
Access to affordable housing can shape the livelihood of individuals and communities. Housing insecurity is widely associated with an array of individual and societal ills.
What follows is a deeper look at the impact across the spectrum.
A heavy financial burden
Many people who struggle to pay their rent are those whose incomes have failed to keep up with the pace of fast-rising housing prices. The housing type that they could once comfortably afford is no longer within their reach.
Housing is considered a cost burden when it gulps up over 30% of a household’s income, or a severe cost burden when it gulps up over 50% of their income. Nearly 84% of households with less than $15,000 household income experience a cost burden.
The bane of substandard housing
People forced to rent low-ball accommodation often grapple with poor standards of living. Their accommodation often lacks standard amenities, with many parts broken or dysfunctional. They are exposed to issues like water leakages, mold and mildew, pest invasion and environmental pollution.
The dilemma of overcrowding
People living in overcrowded spaces also face a dilemma similar to serious housing deprivation. A house is said to be overcrowded when more than two grown-ups share the same room. Overcrowding can create many issues including tense relationships, mental stress, sleep deprivation and exposure to infectious diseases.
The rippling effects of foreclosures and evictions
People lose their belongings and suffer a lot of damage when they are evicted or foreclosed from their homes. When people lose their homes, the impact often spreads throughout an entire neighborhood. The heart and soul of a neighborhood can be ripped apart forever.
Evictees may also suffer a lifetime of discrimination, as a history of eviction is enough for landlords to turn down their rent offer. Even worse, evictions can create a severe impact on physical and mental health. It is no wonder the rates of suicide and mental health problems doubled between 2005 and 2010 when evictions and foreclosures were at historic highs during the deep ends of the great recession.
The unequivocal link to social injustice
The affordable housing crisis is also exacerbating the inequality divide. People from ethnic minorities or marginalized communities are more likely to fall into the category of housing deprived. People who are likely to experience discrimination in other facets of life — such as ex-convicts or low-income populations — also often fall into this category.
Exposure to physical ailments
The physical and mental stress from housing insecurity can give rise to a wide array of physical health problems. In a recent study of newly homeless people in New York City’s shelter system, researchers found that 6% were diabetic, 17% hypertensive, 17% asthma patients, 35% suffered serious depression, and 53% had issues with substance abuse.
Increased risk of mortality
Coupled with the lack of access to adequate healthcare, the risk of these ailments inherently bears down on the mortality rates of the homeless. Overall, mortality is significantly higher compared to people with secured housing. Higher suicide rates also accompany relatively higher rates of mental ailments.
Homeless pregnant women also experience relatively higher rates of infant mortality and preterm or underweight birth.
Difficulties adjusting to new realities
People can also develop psychological issues when trying to adapt to a new environment. Their former neighbors feel their absence — the new ones may not be so welcoming. And their new location could also disrupt their lifestyle, preventing them from going where they used to go and doing the things that they used to.
The mental health challenge
Housing insecurity is heavily linked to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, social disorders and substance abuse. These issues can in turn lead to isolation, chronic unemployment and other social issues that send the homeless spiraling down further.
What social workers are doing to help the housing insecure
Social workers are concerned with people’s ability to fill their physical and physiological needs. Their skills and knowledge are highly instrumental to people in need of decent accommodation.
Some ways in which they help include:
Social workers can help people avoid eviction by connecting them with federal and state programs offering rent support for low-income people.
Direct housing solutions
Before seeking out emergency shelters and other homeless care solutions, social workers will first assess the possibility of finding decent accommodation within the budget of the individual or household. They can negotiate on their behalf, ensuring they are not hindered by their eviction history, substance abuse history or other social determinants.
Access to emergency housing
If social workers cannot find an accommodation that an individual or family can afford, they can arrange for temporary shelters where they can stay while their planned transition to permanent residence gets underway.
These temporary housing arrangements include:
- Emergency shelters
- Transitional or temporary housing
- Permanent supportive housing for those experiencing mental disorders or chronic homelessness.
Healthcare hot spotting
Social workers can collaborate with government agencies and nonprofits to hotspot geographic areas or identify areas with high levels of housing depravity. They can then focus on these needy areas, using their meticulous research and advocacy skills to find and implement data-driven solutions to fill the voids.
Mental health and substance abuse services
Social workers are trained to serve as primary and secondary care providers for mental health patients. They can treat mental health problems in homeless people directly or refer them to the right mental care facilities.
Social workers experience enormous pressure at work due to the increasing demand for their services. But in order to dispense their duties effectively, they need to protect themselves from stress and constant pressure. They practice social worker self-care and take time out to attend to their personal needs. That includes opening up about their stress, indulging in daily personal care routines and eating healthily.
Top-draw social worker programs like that of Spring Arbor University also prepare students for the rigors of social care work. It equips students to take on social work with full confidence and competence. The 100% coursework plus hundreds of hours of practical work gives students adequate exposure to the processes involved in crafting and implementing social care plans and policies for individuals, groups and organizations.
Engaging in outreach
Outreach social workers are responsible for connecting homeless people with the right intervention programs. They reach out to homeless people who qualify for various housing intervention programs, educate them about the program, and assist in guiding their transition to permanent residence with the help of the programs.
Social workers also reach out to veterans, committing them to housing support programs for veterans.
When housing solutions are lacking or existing ones are inadequate, social workers spend a lot of their time working with government agencies and relevant organizations to secure better housing solutions for a community or demographic. They can lobby on behalf of individuals, citizen bodies, neighborhoods, communities, organizations, schools or larger populations on the macro level.
Social workers are spearheading the struggle against housing insecurity
Social workers exercise their social skills and clinical judgments in many different settings to alleviate the pain and suffering of people grappling with housing deprivation.
Their role is continuous in the fight against poor housing.
They bring immediate relief to those in need of urgent housing intervention, guide those transitioning from temporary shelters to permanent homes and advocate better solutions for housing insecurity across all levels.