January 31, 2010

While There is Tragedy in Haiti, Don't Forget Your Neighbors

Up to 200,000 people may have died after a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010. Over 2 million people are still in need of food and medical attention. The disaster in Haiti is hard to fathom. My heart goes out to those injured, dead, and now those millions who are still in need of food and medical attention. I can't even imagine what it is going to take to rebuild Haiti after this terrible event.

USAID reports as of January 22, it has contributed $90 million to the U.N. appeal, including $22 million in non-food assistance and $68 million in food assistance. Additional contributions of nearly $90 million in assistance for search-and-rescue, health, and other support had also been committed as of January 22, bringing total USAID assistance to Haiti for the earthquake $180 million. Over the past several weeks I have seen television commercials imploring people to donate money, food, and clothing to Haiti. I have seen movie stars, professional athletes, musicians, rap stars and others announcing that they personally have donated money to Haiti and asking us to do the same. The outpouring of support for the people suffering from this tragedy is unbelievable. Especially in light of the number of Americans out of work or devastated by the economic downturn here in the United States. Americans have a lot to be proud of for the efforts being made to help the Haitian people, and it appears we have only just begun.

I was in San Francisco the day after the earthquake struck Haiti to celebrate my daughter's birthday. I had a wonderful three days celebrating with Lauren and her friends. We played and ate and generally just had a very fun time going places and doing things. During the day, it seemed everywhere we went someone was asking us for money to eat, drink, or get somewhere. At night, everywhere we went we saw people sleeping in doorways of stores and office buildings. There is poverty and homelessness in San Francisco, and, I would venture to guess, every big city in the United States, and probably small cities too.

About 3.5 million US residents (about 1% of the population), including 1.35 million children, have been homeless for a significant period of time. Over 37,000 homeless individuals (including 16,000 children) stay in shelters in New York every night. This information was gathered by the Urban Institute, but actual numbers might be higher.

A study conducted in 2001 by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 27 major cities showed that homeless shelters turned down 37% of individuals due to overcrowding. This number has increased 11% compared to the previous year, while the number of places available in homeless shelters changed insignificantly. Statistics for homeless families are even graver -- 52% were turned down by homeless shelters, an increase of 22% since 2001. Experts believe that the number of homeless people is significantly higher than the number of places available in shelters. Furthermore, outside of major cities there are very few shelters, despite the high number of the homeless.

Some important information gleaned from Sermon’s video above:

• On a given night, an estimated 672,000 people experience homelessness. This means 22 out of every 10,000 people are homeless in America.

• 42% of those 672,000 are unsheltered (meaning they live on the streets or in other forms of shelter not meant for human habitation), while 58% are living in shelters or transitional housing.

• 37% of the homeless are people in family units, while 63% are individual adults.

• The most common makeup of a homeless family is a mother with one or two children. This certainly goes against the image of homelessness most perceive; we’ve noticed that people typically picture the homeless as a single male standing on the street corner, not a single mom with kids in tow.

• Those meeting the federal definition for chronic homelessness make up just 18% of the entire homeless population.

• Sermon explains that the chronically homeless, as defined by the federal government, include individuals with physical or mental disabilities who have experienced homelessness multiple times or have remained homeless for a significant amount of time.

• 8 out of 10 homeless persons are in urban or mostly urban areas.

• Overall, homelessness decreased 10% from 2005 to 2007. This does not show the influence of the current economic slump.

• In July 2009, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a mix of 2007 and 2008 homeless count numbers, the first official attempt to reveal the affects the recession has had on the homeless. These preliminary numbers show that the number of homeless had not changed between 2007 and 2008. However, Sermons points out that this stalemate (after a period of significant decreases in homelessness) demonstrates a significant step backward in efforts to end homelessness.

The recession will force 1.5 million more people into homelessness over the next two years, according to estimates by The National Alliance to End Homelessness. In a 2008 report, the U.S. Conference of Mayors cited a major increase in the number of homeless in 19 out of the 25 cities surveyed. On average, cities reported a 12 percent increase of homelessness since 2007.

Although homelessness is a difficult number to measure definitively, it appears that more people—especially families—are sleeping in shelters, living in their cars, and taking up residence in tent communities. See also: "Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University: The State of the Nation's Housing 2009."

I could go on and on, but by now I sense you get the point. Things are not great right here in the United States of America. We may not be suffering from a tragic 7.0 earthquake, but there are homeless hungry people right here in America. There are people right here in America who need food, clothing, and medical attention. I can't help but wonder what that $180 million dollars could be doing right here in America.

Many different religions provide guidelines for giving charity. We've all heard "Charity begins at home." Religious teachings agree. After things are secured at home, we are told to look for those in need in our community, in our city, in our state, in our country, and then, and only then, to those throughout the rest of the world. I hope those who have given to those in need of assistance in Haiti have helped those in need right here in America. If not, it's not too late. There's a woman out on the street not two miles from my house holding a sign that says "Dreaming of Chicken."

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TheBAFSignal by Bradley A. Friedman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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