Don’t panic: the four of us are not homeless. Lily, 9, Hoosegow and I will not be sleeping in the Subaru at a rest stop or showing up with a request to crash on your couch for a few days while we figure out what comes next. This blog is about homelessness in Washington State and in the country in general, inspired by a recent conversation with a friend.
This particular friend travels a lot. Recently, he was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and, later, driving north on I-5 in Washington State. One rest stop on I-5 was chock full of people camping in their cars, a place where they could feel relatively safe while sleeping and also have access to restrooms. In contrast, Milwaukee appeared to have no homeless population.
My cynical reply to this observation was, “Oh, sure. That’s because you were at a big event and the city government had cleared their homeless out of the touristy areas. They’re just trying to make themselves look good because they’re hosting the 2024 Republican National Convention.”
A couple of days later, curiosity got the better of me. A tiny bit of internet research revealed a reality different than I had pictured. Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee have been recognized by HUD as having the lowest unsheltered homeless population in the country!
So there are people who don’t even have a car to sleep in if they need to?
Are these people unemployed?
Some, but not all, Lily. We grew up in a three bedroom, one and three-quarters bath house that our parents own, correct?
Three-quarters bath? It only has a toilet and a sink.
Right. Until we come home from our first semester of college at which point they’ve added a shower. Dad worked full time, Mom worked part time, and they did a lot of the home renovation and remodeling themselves.
Because no one had lived there for 40 years when they bought it.
That’s right, 9. There was sure a lot of work to do, and we rented for three years until they got it to a point where we could live there.
We were a lucky family, and more families were lucky in that way at that time. Now, to pay the rent on a modest two bedroom house, a full time worker needs to earn $28.58 an hour. So if people work full time in jobs that pay the minimum Federal wage of $7.25 they just can’t make it. A general budgeting rule is that rent should be no more than 30% of your gross income. So if a person works full time at a Federal minimum wage job, they should pay a maximum of $362.50 monthly (2000 hours x $7.25/hour x 30%/12). The rest of their wages are needed for food, utilities, and other basic necessities. Even in a two-earner full time household they would earn only a little over half of $28.58.
Some states have set a higher minimum hourly wage. Washington State ranks highest in the nation at $15.74 in 2023. So maybe a two-earner household could make it here.
That would imply we have a very low rate of homelessness in Washington.
It certainly does, Lily, but in fact we have the ninth highest rate per capita of homelessness in the nation. Wisconsin has the ninth lowest per capita homelessness rate in the nation, and the City of Milwaukee counted seventeen unhoused homeless people in their last census (made annually in January).
The key is lack of affordable housing. The Milwaukee Housing First program provides permanent housing to people who are homeless without any requirements, such as participation in programs, employment or sobriety. Living on the street requires day-to-day absorption in finding food, shelter and safety, an absorption that makes it difficult if not impossible to take on other difficult projects like overcoming addiction and finding work. Milwaukee offers housing first, so people can have the mental space to consider the optional services also offered, such as treatment for substance abuse. Housing is made possible through the use of rent vouchers, not through the capital-intensive and time-consuming process of building shelters or low income housing. Many state, federal, local and non-profit agencies work together to support this program. Interesting details and the personal story of someone who benefited from Housing First can be found here:
So why isn’t this being done everywhere across the country?
Good question, Lily. Some say it’s “lack of political will” (according to Wikipedia: Political will is defined as “the extent of committed support among key decision makers for a particular policy solution to a particular problem.”). Decision makers of local, state and national policies can’t agree on how to solve things that badly need solving, and I’ll bet a lot of it has to do with that nasty “p” word, politics.
There’s a lot of sentiment toward blaming the homeless for being homeless. With the increasing gap between wages and housing costs, I don’t think this is correct. You can work full time at a minimum wage job and not be able to keep a roof over your head while also feeding yourself. Some people who work full time can only afford to live in their cars. If they still have the resources to keep their cars, that is.
The whole thinking behind the Milwaukee program is that having a secure and permanent place to live is the most effective way to help people get back on their feet. A while ago I was having another conversation with a fellow swimmer I know from the YMCA pool. There was a bit of a “first world problem” at the Y at that time, as the HVAC renovation on the upgraded locker rooms was running over the projected schedule. I pay extra for the upgraded locker room, and was about to say I do this “because I deserve it.” After two seconds of thought what I actually said was all anyone really deserves is a safe place to sleep and enough food to eat. The rest is gravy.
Research and reflection on homelessness has reminded me of something important: if I hear about something that appears too good to be true (like Milwaukee’s Housing First program) it is okay to be skeptical but also essential to investigate before cynically assuming it is an outright lie dressed up in sheep’s clothing.
It’s easy to feel powerless when contemplating the homelessness crisis in this country. What can one person do?
On local, state and national levels we can elect decision makers who make affordable housing a priority. We can also, with thankful hearts for our own good fortune, support homeless shelters in our own communities as long as they are needed.