Helping people who are experiencing homelessness is a noble and worthy endeavor, and people who choose to devote their lives to ending homelessness may do so through volunteer work and advocacy or by building a career out of their calling.
According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “more than 326,000 people experienced sheltered homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2021.” In this article, we unpack what measures you can take to start supporting one of the most vulnerable, disenfranchised populations in the country.
How to Help the Homeless Through Volunteer Work
Raising awareness and amplifying the voices of disadvantaged populations can have a significant impact on the problem of homelessness across the United States. The commitment to ending homelessness is a lifestyle. It involves time and energy spent on identifying and joining successful homeless programs, and, for the truly devoted, it may even mean launching a new homeless program or services initiative.
Many opportunities exist for those who are passionate about helping people experiencing homelessness, including:
- Donating money, clothing, and other personal items
- Volunteering at a local shelter or homeless services organization
- Promoting local shelters to people experiencing homelessness in the community
- Starting a GoFundMe to raise money for shelters
- Voting for politicians who support homelessness prevention programs
- Helping the homeless register to vote
- Organizing a company team-building event with Habitat for Humanity
Before dedicating yourself to an organization, research and educate yourself about the homeless population, including the LGBTQ+ community, homeless veterans, people with addiction and mental health disorders, among others.
Be compassionate and treat people experiencing homelessness, mental health problems, and substance use disorders with respect. Use “people first” language, and remember that every situation is different and every person is unique.
Targeted Help for Homeless Children and Teens
In its recent report of public school students experiencing homelessness, the National Center for Homeless Education revealed that 1,387,573 students enrolled in U.S. public schools during the 2018-19 school year were homeless at some point. This number represented a 2 percent increase from the 2016-17 school year.
In 2018 there were 36,361 unaccompanied youths experiencing homelessness — 4,093 of whom were under the age of 18.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that children and teens experience distinct consequences of homelessness, such as low self-esteem and other risk factors.
Homeless youth are at an increased risk for:
- Physical, emotional, and behavioral health problems
- Substance use disorders
- Learning disabilities
- Poor school attendance
- Low graduation rates
Once they have aged out foster care and the juvenile justice system, homeless children and teens have difficulty finding housing and support services catered to their specific developmental requirements.
In 2016 and 2017, Voices of Youth Count, a policy research initiative, and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago collected data on people aged 13 to 25 who’d experienced homelessness over the course of a year. The survey was part of an effort to shape policy and practices around helping the homeless in this demographic.
“The challenge involves a scale that requires greater coordination and resourcing of multiple systems and programs — behavioral and physical health, child welfare, education, employment, housing, justice, and outreach — at local, state, and federal levels to drive these numbers toward zero,” wrote the authors of Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America.
Voices of Youth Count’s Recommendations to Congress
- Conduct national estimates of youth homelessness every two years.
- Fund housing interventions, services, outreach, and prevention efforts.
- Assess and delivery services tailored to homeless youth.
- Build prevention efforts in education, child welfare, and juvenile justice systems.
- Adapt housing and developmental services to children and teens.
- Expand support for homeless children and teens in rural communities.
- Develop strategies to prevent homelessness among high-risk youth.
Causes of Homelessness
Several factors can contribute to economic instability, which, for many, results in homelessness. Causes of homelessness range from unexpected job loss and inflation to mental illness and domestic violence.
Other factors that influence homelessness include:
- Insufficient access to public assistance
- Lack of educational opportunities
- Racial inequality
- Substance use disorders
- Limited access to quality health care
In many states, legislators have turned to criminalizing homelessness as solution to the problem, but housing advocates argue that arresting people for sleeping outside only makes the problem worse, as having a criminal record makes it extremely difficult for a homeless person to obtain housing.
Making a Career Out of Helping the Homeless
Homelessness is such a pervasive and multifaceted problem in the United States that a career in any areas of the human services sector can have a significant effect on adults and children experiencing homelessness.
Safe affordable housing is crucial to becoming a healthy, thriving, contributing member of a community, but more than a half a million people in the country currently experience homelessness — some temporarily and many chronically homeless.
A career in social work will allow you make a difference in the lives of people experiencing homelessness and those at risk for homelessness. From child welfare and geriatric social work to mental health and addiction counseling, social workers can prevent homelessness by working to mitigate risk factors among people most vulnerable to homelessness.
The National Association of Social Workers defines the practice as “the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends: helping people obtain tangible services; counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups; helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services; and participating in legislative processes.”
Whether you work in a private practice, school, healthcare facility, or government agency, your social work skills can directly and indirectly impact the complex, systemic problem of homelessness. Homelessness is the result of multiple and diverse underlying economic and social factors that can’t be overcome by helping the homeless one individual at a time.