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Herbert A.Opalek: The root cause of homelessness

Herb Opalek

The homeless situation has become a hot button topic here in Merced.

I believe that in order to combat a problem and offer prescriptive solutions, one must be aware of the root cause of that particular problem.

By definition, being homeless is not having anywhere to call home, although it also can mean living in a place that was never intended to house human beings, such as a park bench, encampment, or highway underpass.

The National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients puts the number of homeless somewhere between 2.3 million and 3.5 million people each year.

This figure roughly translates to one percent of the American population. Just under a quarter of these people are chronically homeless, meaning that they are repeatedly or continuously without a home.

It is a fact that minorities are disproportionately represented among the nation's homeless. Homelessness tends to be centered in big cities, where housing costs are high but small towns are not immune.

In rural areas, families with children make up a larger proportion of the homeless than in the cities.

Many homeless people start out with jobs and stable residences, but then social and economic factors intervene, causing a rapid change in their living situation.

The two biggest factors driving homelessness are poverty and lack of affordable housing. In 2004, 37 million, or 12.7 percent of the American population lived in poverty. Many of these people lived from paycheck to paycheck with nothing saved in the bank.

The loss of a job, illness, or any catastrophic event can lead to missed rent or mortgage payments and ultimately, to eviction or foreclosure. We often see this in Merced.

About two thirds of homeless people struggle with an alcohol or drug abuse problem. Finding housing is difficult for people who are in active addiction. And, treatment and recovery services are hard to find when living on the street, thereby creating a cycle of homelessness and addiction from which it's almost impossible to escape.

That is why the Rescue Mission offers a New Life Transformation Program.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of all homeless people have some type of mental illness.

As with substance abuse, people with mental illness often have trouble finding housing and treatment. They also may need extra health care and assistance with everyday activities -- help that is not readily available in shelters.

About half of all homeless women are fleeing an abusive relationship. Battered women's shelters, when they are available, provide a safe haven for victims of abuse.

Children, also, run away from home because of physical or sexual abuse.

One study found that nearly half of all runaway youths had been physically abused, and almost 20 percent had been sexually abused.

Homeless children have higher rates of ear infections, stomach problems and asthma than other children their age. They are also more likely to be depressed, anxious or withdrawn and have more difficulty in school than their peers.

As to veterans, the best estimate is that 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Most are single men, and nearly half have mental illness or substance abuse problems. Many are struggling with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers some programs, it can only accommodate about 25 percent of homeless veterans.

In 1987, President Reagan signed the first and only significant legislation addressing homelessness. The McKinney-Vento Act, which was originally named the Homeless Persons' Survival Act, provides emergency shelter, transitional housing, food, health care, mental health and substance abuse services and education to the nation's homeless.

New programs were added, including the Rural Homeless Housing Assistance grant program and free public preschool education for homeless children.

Over the years, though, funding for the McKinney-Vento Act programs has diminished. Several programs were eliminated, including the adult education for the homeless program and the family support centers.

Because of the economic crunch, other programs are now in jeopardy.

There are so many ways in which we in Merced can help the homeless.

Here are just a few:

Volunteer by helping out at a local shelter distributing clothes, serving meals or answering phones.

Build houses with Habitat for Humanity, or volunteer at an agency that helps the homeless.

Donate by gathering up any clothes, toys, books, household goods, toiletries or computers you're not using and donate them.

Advocate by contacting your local representatives and push for new legislation to help the homeless.

Lastly, hire homeless people at your company.

If you do nothing else, be kind. The next time you see a homeless person on the street, don't just look away.

Herbert A. Opalek is CEO of the Merced County Rescue Mission. He writes a column every other Saturday.