Black and white photo of person lying on the ground under a tree

Longtime Columbus residents understand some of the inherent causes that lead to homelessness in our community. Tax abatements for high-end real estate developments and a slowed job growth rate in 2018 mean that many middle class individuals can’t afford to live here. For those earning minimum wage or the unemployed, the threat of homelessness is very real.

In fact, families and children are among the highest at-risk populations for homelessness. According to the Ohio Housing Finance Agency (OHFA), about 30 percent of the homeless serviced by various state agencies in 2017 were minors. In addition, the overall rate of homelessness increased across the state in 2018. Homelessness isn’t under control in Ohio by any means.

Ohio’s “Housing First” Model

Despite evidence to the contrary, Columbus has been touted as a model city on a national level when it comes to finding housing for homeless individuals. The capital city was one of the first in the nation to adopt a “housing first” approach, which prioritizes immediate housing above all else, without barriers.

Those barriers, which often exist in housing programs across the nation, may include income and employment stipulations or substance abuse treatment requirements.

The housing first approach postulates that, when a homeless individual doesn’t have to worry about a roof over their head, they can more easily begin work on the issues that led them to homelessness in the first place.

Housing advocates have praised Columbus for putting a significant dent in its homeless numbers, but the city’s apparent success is just a small part of the larger nationwide picture.

Homeless in America: By the Numbers

According to GeekWire, there were 1,807 people experiencing homelessness in Columbus and surrounding areas at any given time in 2018. Across the U.S., the number is more difficult to pin down, but it is estimated that, on any given night, more than 1.5 million people lack adequate housing. Of those individuals, about 15 percent are “chronically” homeless, meaning they have been continuously homeless for at least one year.

Many people operate under the false impression that homeless individuals are primarily drug addicts, mentally ill individuals, or veterans living with PTSD. However, the reasons behind homelessness are more complicated than anyone could imagine.

Identifying High-risk Populations

Veterans are indeed at high risk where homelessness is concerned, in part due to negative self-stigma. Negative thinking patterns and a focus on past traumatic experiences can effectively push veterans towards depression, poverty, and homelessness.

In Central Ohio, young people are one of the largest populations of homeless individuals. More than 3,500 public school students in Columbus City Schools, from preschool through high school, lack a permanent residence.

Another overlooked group that may experience homelessness in large numbers is millennials. Unemployment, underemployment, and rising rents are the primary culprits of the rise of millennial homelessness.

The lack of affordable housing is a major issue across the U.S., and the Buckeye State is no exception. In Ohio, for every 100 low-income households, there are only 42 “affordable” rental units available. Sixty-eight percent of those households spend more than half of their income on rent. And research has shown that homelessness rates tend to rise quickly when rent costs exceed one-third of a household’s income.

Potential Solutions to the Homeless Epidemic

Combating homelessness starts with awareness. Rutgers University advocates a social justice approach to ending homelessness. “Housing first” operates under the principles of the social justice approach, putting homeless individuals on more of an equal playing field despite hardships such as poverty and mental illness.

Housing first may be responsible for the reduction in veteran homelessness across Ohio. Studies show that the number of homeless veterans in greater Columbus dipped by about 28 percent in 2018, which may indicate that the housing first approach is working.

When it comes down to it, there’s no single solution to combating homelessness. Advocates can continue to fight for a living wage, which may help offset rising rent prices. Identifying at-risk populations and guiding those individuals toward affordable housing and stable employment options may also help reduce homeless numbers in Ohio.