Homelessness Is Not Just About Housing

Last week, the federal government announced an unprecedented funding commitment of $216 million to programs -- old and new, rural and urban -- designed to alleviate homelessness nationwide. The grants exceed last year's total by $26 million, with more than $16 million for novel approaches.

As Americans continue to recover from economic downturn, mortgage mayhem, and unemployment, programs serving the country's most economically disadvantaged citizens are critical. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the number of homeless families has increased in 31 out of 50 states since 2008. Nearly three-quarters of all U.S. households with incomes below the federal poverty line spend more than 50 percent of their monthly income on rent. In other words, many of the working poor live one paycheck away from the streets.

This financial commitment by the federal government to help our country's homeless population is heartening, and so are many of the radical and bold new innovations by social entrepreneurs, community organizers, and social workers. Rosanne Haggerty, MacArthur winner and founder of New York City-based

But it's not just the physical structures that give families a new start; it's also the strategic partnerships Common Ground has built with such organizations as East Brooklyn Congregations, SCO Family of Services, and the Consortium for Worker Education. The most successful advocates understand that homelessness is not just about housing. It's about mental health, disability, domestic violence, child abuse, veterans' affairs, incarceration rates, our societal treatment of the elderly, and racism. Much of the unprecedented federal funding will go to innovative groups that deliberately connect different kinds of social-service organizations -- expanding housing advocacy into health, economic, and community outreach.

One in six young adults who age out of foster care, for example, will end up homeless, as will one out of 11 of those recently released from prison. Though they are only 11 percent of the total population, veterans make up one in four homeless people on the streets today; roughly 56 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8 percent and 15.4 percent of the U.S. population, respectively. In other words, the homeless who walk among us are painful reminders that we are failing on a range of social and moral issues.

Homelessness, at its very heart, is about the ways in which more economically privileged, socially supported citizens relate to the most vulnerable people in our own communities. Do we feel a sense of personal responsibility or do we see it as someone else's problem? Do our most dearly held values compel us to act when we see people living on the streets, or do we walk on by? Do we harbor pernicious stereotypes about the homeless, or do we truly believe that everyone deserves shelter?

It's good and right that our federal leaders are funding the great work of government and nongovernmental organizations throughout the nation, but it's not enough. As Haggerty explains, "We assume that it's the job of not-for-profits or government agencies to handle the issue, and we forget that it's actually the most natural thing in the world to help the people around us if we know what they need."

It's not just the destitute in our neighborhoods and communities who are harmed by homelessness. All of us are degraded by living in a time when the suffering of others is tolerated. It is Karl Marx's "theory of alienation" manifest -- capitalism and its effects strip us of our most natural instincts to do what is right and treat others and ourselves with dignity and respect. It is Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" incarnate -- we walk on by, listening to the latest hits on our iPod while ignoring that our basic sense of humanity is being violated by our own neglect. It is what contemporary philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Honor Code, might call a status quo in need of a moral revolution.

But let's be real. It doesn't take a philosopher's training to see that homelessness is simply wrong. It's one of the first moral contradictions that many children notice as they walk down America's sidewalks, prompting so many parents to scramble for explanations as to why anyone -- in the richest country on Earth -- should have to sleep on the streets. There is no excuse, of course. The federal government has recognized that and mobilized substantial resources. Now it's time that we, as citizens in communities where suffering is still too common, accept our own responsibility as well.