Every year, on a given night in January, the US department of Housing and Urban Development conducts an annual count of people experiencing homelessness who are sheltered in an emergency shelter, transitional housing, or a safe haven. The Community Point in Time Count, or PIT, serves to report the number of homeless in a community versus the amount of shelter beds available for those numbers. This is one of the most significant things that happens in a community but is often unnoticed by the community at large. In odd-numbered years, the PIT includes unsheltered numbers as well. This means that workers must go to corners, parks, and bridges to physically count the homeless people sleeping on streets, park benches, and encampments. The problem with the PIT count is that the reported numbers are only what can actually be counted. They aren’t able to count the homeless college student that is sleeping at a coworker’s or family member’s, the mother and her two kids sleeping in a parked car, or the couple sleeping in a motel for a few nights before they have to go to their car.
Keep in mind that the reported numbers are far below accurate; the January 2019 count revealed that there are more than 567,000 homeless people in the United States. (For reference, the population of Birmingham, Montgomery, AND Huntsville combined was about 600,000 at that same time). Across the United States, there are only 291,837 beds for those individuals. This means that for every person sleeping in a shelter bed, there is one sleeping on the street.
In Alabama, there are about 3,261 homeless people (according to the 2019 PIT), which is approximately 0.58% of the US population. California, by contrast, has over 151,000 people and 27% of the US homeless population. The good news is that Alabama’s homeless population has declined by more than 46 percent in the last ten years, ranking it the third-lowest rate of homelessness in the country. However, (the bad news) in just the north and northwest corner of Alabama (between Florence and Huntsville), there were 854 homeless people, which was an increase of 47% in this area. In spite of Alabama’s ranking, there is a still a shortage of 684 beds in the state. This means that 684 of our friends and neighbors are sleeping on the street tonight. In California, the shortage of beds is over 102,000.
While overall, this may seem like good news for Alabama, the United States in general is suffering from a problem with homelessness. The number of people experiencing homelessness in the United States has been rising steadily for the last three years, and the unprecedented events of 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic lead experts to believe that we will see a 50% increase nationwide in homelessness throughout 2021. As of January 2020, there is still only 1 bed for every 2 homeless people in the United States.
The really astonishing part is that we are just talking about beds. We aren’t talking about food, or clothing, or healthcare. While there are private industries and nonprofits who contribute services, the services simply DO NOT EXIST for homeless people like we would like to believe they do.
Here’s what this means: When you are affronted by a homeless person, check yourself. “Why don’t they just go to a shelter?” The truth is that they can’t. If you see them, there is nowhere else for them to be. We won’t even go into the causes of homelessness here.
The competition is high. We have an idea in our head that “services exist” for people in this predicament, but the reality is that the services are not enough. In California, only 1 in 6 people can get access to services. That’s like winning the lottery just to have a meal, or a flu shot, or a bed, or a shower, or a toilet. Many people, already staggering under the weight of just surviving, choose to forego charity services and go it alone, begging or quickly succumbing to the “work” of the street just to eat.
Friend, I’m sharing this information with you because you can help educate others about this. These numbers are only going to get higher. The only way we are going to fix this is if we work together to show dignity to worthy human beings. Volunteer at a shelter. Donate resources to nonprofits that are trying to create permanent housing solutions, rather than temporary beds. Advocate with your community and religious leaders. Let human dignity and worth lead our actions, and change the narrative.
By: Mae Lewis