The problem of homelessness

BY Bill Reagan

Harlingen has a homeless population. You see them in the park, or on the street corners, often asking for a handout. Their homelessness is obvious, difficult to look at and perplexing for most people to understand. The people you see on the street are only a small minority of the homeless population.

Far more people experience invisible homelessness. They live doubled up with family or friends on a temporary basis, moving from one home to the next. They wear out their welcome and move on, sometimes living for days or weeks in an automobile.

No one knows they are homeless. Their children change schools often. But they show up for work. Their clothes are clean. They keep themselves well groomed. You probably know a homeless person and don’t even realize it.

Homelessness has a variety of causes. Some people become homeless because they are irresponsible. They have done foolish things or they don’t want to work. But only some – and not many. Mental illness and substance abuse are significant contributors to homelessness.

Many homeless people would have lived in a mental hospital a generation or two ago. Our society has not found a workable mechanism for taking care of people who are unable to live stable lives.

Most people become homeless for economic reasons. Job loss or illness keep them from working. Medical bills pile up. Rents are beyond their ability to pay. They lack adequate insurance coverage.

The problem of homelessness is best addressed by a comprehensive approach which targets both the causes and consequences of poverty. Homeless prevention services help people avoid losing their homes in the first place. Rapid re-housing places homeless individuals into housing, relieving the physical and psychological strain of living in the streets or at a shelter.

When these programs are coupled with good healthcare and mental health services homelessness can be overcome.

Bill Reagan is executive director of Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley.