The Platform


As you go to bed tonight, snuggled up in your softest blanket, 580,466 Americans will not share the same experience. In the following year, an extra 2.2% of Americans, or 12,700 people, will also not share the same experience. Instead, they will be forced to sleep in cars, on park benches in freezing weather, or in overcrowded shelters during a pandemic. Homelessness continues to grow in the United States, but why?

Homelessness is a result of a variety of factors, from domestic abuse to mental illness or to being a veteran. All these reasons share one thing in common that continues the cycle of homelessness: a lack of affordable housing. This is evident in the data on homelessness– areas with the largest homeless populations are large, metropolitan cities with astronomical rent prices.

The list of cities with the most homeless people include Los Angeles, New York City, San Diego, and Seattle. In New York City, for example, rent has increased by 34% in the past year, hovering at about $2,005 per month for a one-bedroom. For most residents, paying rent has become virtually impossible, reducing many to becoming homeless.

This situation remains the same in smaller cities as well. Jen Stringer, a high school teacher from Florida’s Monroe County, must work a second-night job as a waitress just to afford to pay rent. Without her job as a waitress, Stringer would be homeless, as only 5 out of the available 155 rental listings in the county are affordable on a median teacher’s salary. This is not an isolated instance: it is a situation many Americans know all too well.

6.3 million Americans spend more than half their income on rent, making rent a cost burden and putting them at risk of homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, spending over 30% of one’s salary on rent is considered a cost burden that may leave people finding it difficult to pay for food, medical services, and transportation. These are all essentials that everyone should be able to afford without having to sacrifice one necessity for another.

A heavily debated solution is to provide housing vouchers to all those in need. Currently, housing vouchers, where the government pays 70% of a family’s rent, are in place for low-income families. Extending the coverage of these vouchers would increase the program cost from $19 billion a year to $41 billion.

While expensive, it is important to remember that, according to the New York Times, “the government annually provides more than $70 billion in tax breaks to homeowners, including a deduction for mortgage interest payments and a free pass on some capital gains from home sales.” If the government can garner enough funding to provide tax breaks to homeowners, they can surely generate funding to greatly reduce the homeless population. It is a matter of choosing to address the situation, rather than constantly pushing it aside.

Helsinki, Finland is a city that has been praised for acting towards eradicating homelessness. Though Helsinki has a much smaller homeless population, its small size does not undermine the effectiveness of its strategy: addressing the root cause of homelessness. With support from local and state governments, as well as NGOs like Y-Foundation, Helsinki was able to build 3,500 housing units for the homeless. Since its inception in 2008, housing units reduced homelessness by 35%. In fact, moving people away from homeless shelters to permanent homes reduced the number of shelters from 50 to 1. These results have influenced other countries such as France, Australia, and England to start their own pilot programs, but the United States has failed to hop on the trend.

Instead, the homelessness issue in the U.S. continues to worsen. Everyone has the right to a place to live. We can build as many homeless shelters and come up with as many temporary solutions for homelessness as we want, but that simply puts a Band-Aid over a bullet hole. The real issue is the lack of affordable housing. Until that problem has been resolved, we will continue to see half a million Americans live a life of unnecessary suffering.

Chelsea Gan is a high school student at Miami, Florida. She has been writing for the Foreign Policy Youth Collaborative since 2020.