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The forgotten cities

As Homeless encampments continue to grow, thousands of Americans are left in the dust. We need to do more. 

I will never forget the first time I drove through “The Zone,” a massive homeless encampment in the heart of downtown Phoenix. Far from my hometown of Cincinnati, I had arrived in Phoenix, Arizona the night before to spend the summer working at Andre House of Hospitality, a soup kitchen and daytime service center for people experiencing homelessness. Driving slowly to avoid hitting people in the street, I saw block after block lined with tents and tarps, hundreds of people living on the streets in the sweltering Arizona summer. The tents surrounded Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, St. Vincent DePaul and Andre House, organizations where people experiencing homelessness could access shelter beds, meals, showers and other necessities. However, in Phoenix, the needs of vulnerable unhoused people extend far beyond available resources. Last reported, Maricopa County had about 1,800 shelter beds but approximately 7,500 people experiencing homelessness. Over half of these people are unsheltered. 

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Phoenix. From Seattle, to Oregon, to Los Angeles’ infamous “Skid Row,” communities of people living on the streets have emerged in many major American cities. In 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court (Jurisdiction: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) ruled that, if there are not enough beds available to shelter a city’s homeless population, it is unconstitutional to criminalize people for sleeping in public spaces. Thus, alongside increased rates of homelessness due to the pandemic, the amount of people living on the streets has grown rapidly while cities struggle to meet the need for shelter beds. Although the decriminalization of homelessness is critical, it is not enough for cities to just turn a blind eye to people living on the streets. Instead, there must be actual investments made to ensure that people are moved off the streets into temporary shelters and eventually, permanent, stable housing. 

Homelessness is an extremely complicated issue. Addiction and mental health both play a massive role — approximately 20% of homeless Americans suffer from severe mental illness and a substantial portion of the homeless population suffers from addiction. Furthermore, incarceration and homelessness are strongly correlated, a lack of effective rehabilitation programs creating a “revolving door” between the streets and the system. The most notable cause of homelessness, however, is a lack of affordable housing, and for good reason. In Phoenix, rent rose by an average of 30% in 2021 and continues to rise. It is shown that in communities where rent prices exceed 32% of average annual income, there are sharp increases in homelessness. Therefore, as long as rent continues to rise at a quicker rate than wages, it is likely that we will continue to witness the growth of tent cities. While all Americans feel the effects of inflation, low income populations are especially vulnerable, and rising rents could force thousands of already struggling Americans into homelessness.

Andre House is a presence-based ministry, and throughout the summer I had the privilege of hearing the stories of many of our guests. Every story was different, and it caused me to realize how nuanced the issue of homelessness is. I met people who had been on the streets for a few days, and people who had been on the streets for years. I befriended girls my age whose parents had kicked them out and watched while elderly, disabled people struggled to navigate life on the streets. I saw firsthand how debilitating addiction could be, and I realized how prevalent untreated mental illness is among the homeless population. Above all else, however, I learned what an immense barrier homelessness is to full human expression. I met so many incredible individuals who were living on the streets of Phoenix, yet their conditions allowed them to do little more than just survive. 

In places like Phoenix, homeless people die preventable deaths every day due to treacherous climates, experience extremely high rates of sexual assault and have a mortality rate that is three times greater than the general population. It is clear that something must be done. The solution does not lie in criminalizing homelessness, and it does not lie in simply allowing people to live on the streets unbothered. Instead, politicians from both sides of the aisle must work together to create more temporary shelters, put protections in place against skyrocketing rents and address the need for better rehabilitation programs. For me, growing up in a middle class suburb and now the ”“Notre Dame Bubble,” it can be easy to ignore the complexity of the issue and place the blame on people for their situations. However, at its core, homelessness is not a political issue, but a matter of human dignity. As a society, it should be our goal to give all people the resources they need to participate fully; thus, it is imperative that something is done to get people off the streets, and eventually, into permanent housing. 

Leah Moody is a sophomore living in Flaherty Hall studying economics and philosophy. She is the Director of Events for BridgeND, an organization that seeks to promote bipartisan discussion on campus. She spent the past summer working at Andre House in Phoenix, AZ through the Notre Dame Summer Service Learning Program.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in Duncan Student Center W246 to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at bridgend@nd.edu or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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