Affordable housing is increasingly hard to come by -- especially for young people starting out in life, but also for adults on the wrong end of the income disparity divide. Today, rising rents and stagnant or declining wages are obliging more people to spend a large portion of their income on housing, putting increasing numbers at risk of homelessness.
Zillow Research published a 2018 study of housing affordability and homelessness in the United States and found that communities where residents typically spend more than a third of their income on rent can expect to see a more rapid increase in homelessness.
In fact, the study says, “The areas that are most vulnerable to rising rents, unaffordability and poverty hold 15% of the U.S. population and 47% of people experiencing homelessness.”
According to the most recent “State of Homelessness” report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 6.7 million U.S. households spent more than 50% of their income on rent and 4.4 million poor households “doubled up” (i.e., lived with family and friends) in 2017. They were at increased risk of homelessness.
Since the 1990s, governments in both the U.S. and Canada have invested less and less in affordable housing and abandoned robust housing policies that would lift some of the burden from struggling families.
Young people who leave or are removed from or tossed out of their family homes face enormous housing challenges. Those who age out of foster care or other child welfare systems without adult support are “thrown into the deep end” of the adult swimming pool, expected to arrange stable, affordable housing from one day to the next. Many of them, however, lack a high school diploma and are ill-prepared to find and hold a job that can cover their housing and related expenses.
The U.S. Administration for Children and Families says that by age 21, at least 26% of young people who aged out of foster care in the U.S. experienced a period or more of homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development puts that figure at 11 to 37%, with another 25 to 50% unstably housed.
In Central America, governments have lacked the ability or drive to provide affordable housing for large swathes of their people. According to research at INCAE Business School, a regional institution, at least 7.5 million Central Americans live in informal settlements, or slums, a number that is rising. In Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, there is a housing shortage of a million homes in each country. Poverty, inequality, and the lack of opportunity are among the factors that prompt Central American youth and adults to leave their homes and join the migrant trail.
The housing shortage in Mexico translates to millions of citizens living in small, tight spaces in dwellings made of poor materials such as cardboard and reeds. According to a 2016 report of the Center for Housing Research and Documentation and the Federal Mortgage Society, about 34 million Mexicans live more than two people to a room in such homes. “A large number of people living in small spaces can lead to academic failure, child abuse, stress, tension and depression,” notes a recent article in El Pais. Living in tight, unstable quarters also fosters illness and mental health issues, it says.
Across our federation, Covenant House, known as Casa Alianza in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras and as La Alianza in Guatemala, provides emergency shelter as well as transitional and supportive housing programs to help young people overcome homelessness. Some Covenant House sites have developed apartment-living programs that provide youth with time-limited rental subsidies to help them transition from our care to their own housing.
We also help youth develop the tools and skills they need to sustain their independence, providing comprehensive financial literacy programs that help them take their first steps toward obtaining a bank account and building credit. We help young people fill in their education, life skills, and job readiness gaps, and help them deal with the trauma of their past homelessness. In all these ways, Covenant House helps young people prepare themselves to pay rent, sustain their housing, and become truly independent.
In addition, Covenant House provides family reunification and follow-up services whenever it is safe and in the best interest of the young person to return to their family of origin.
Read the Zillow report, “Homelessness Rises Faster Where Rent Exceeds a Third of Income,” 2018; “State of Homelessness,” National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2019; “Homelessness and Crisis of Affordable Housing: The Abandonment of a Federal Affordable Housing Policy,” by Alfred M. Clark, III, in the Journal of Affordable Housing, vol 25, no. 1, 2016; “Understanding Housing Challenges and Supports for Former Foster Youth,” HUD PD&R Edge, 2016; “The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016,” The Homeless Hub; “Estado de la Vivienda en Centro América” (English summary), CLADCS, INCAE Business School, 2018; “A Tight Spot for the 34 million Mexicans Living in Micro-Apartments,” El Pais, Feb. 9, 2018.