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How Does Chronic Homelessness Happen?

A look at the history of homelessness with Nashville Rescue Mission CEO, Glenn Cranfield.

Homelessness is one of the everyday things that people in our culture today can easily shrug off as an unavoidable issue. When the topic comes up, eyes glaze over and people tune out. The homeless are the unfortunates who “will always be among us.”

As CEO of Nashville Rescue Mission, I absolutely reject that passivity. Homelessness is not an “incurable disease.” We can do something to decrease chronic homelessness in our communities, and one of our best tools is memory. Before we move forward, we need to look back. How did homelessness become chronic, anyway? 

First, how do we define “chronic homelessness?”

The National Alliance to End Homelessness defines Chronic homelessness as a term “used to describe people who have experienced homelessness for at least a year — or repeatedly — while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.”

People who suffer from chronic homelessness are trapped in a vicious cycle. They find themselves struggling to afford secure housing. Some are torn between paying for medical bills or the rent. Some end up losing their jobs. It only takes a small disaster and they end up homeless. Once their home is gone, it’s difficult for them to get their feet back under them and they are thrown into a trap of homelessness, unable to make enough money to escape.

This has not always been the case. In fact, widespread homelessness during a good economic time is historically unusual.

Homelessness in the past.

I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Beth Shinn a few weeks ago when she appeared as a guest on the Real Hope Podcast. She shared that back in the 1970s, homelessness was uncommon. Some older, white men in impoverished areas didn’t have homes, but scientists believed when that generation passed on, homelessness would end. Unfortunately, this was far from true. As rent began to rise, wages couldn’t keep up and new groups of people were forced to give up their homes. 

Experts started to notice different types of people living on the streets. Families, young people, women, and minorities were having a hard time affording rent, especially in specific areas where housing prices skyrocketed.

While it might seem that housing costs would be the direct link to homelessness, it’s not. Homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, is caused by a combination of factors. Over the past 20 years, we have also seen an increase in poverty levels, mental illness, and addiction disorders, and now we’re fighting a worldwide pandemic. Similarly to how wages can’t keep up with costs-of-living, government assistance has been unable to keep up with the increased homeless population.

Each of the factors require a deep dive on their own. And what’s leading to these increases? Unfortunately, it’s not a simple answer. Neither is a solution for homelessness. The causes of homelessness are multi-pronged, which is why the solution needs to be as well.

A Housing First approach is not the only solution. If we take resources and pour those solely into housing, I believe we will not see the long-term effects we’d hope for. We would see a short, beneficial impact for our homeless neighbors, but those suffering from chronic homelessness will still be affected by the other issues that have gone unaddressed, such as a mental illness or addiction.

Homelessness as we know it today.

My work as CEO of Nashville Rescue Mission gives me a unique glimpse into the hearts and lives of the homeless population of the Nashville area. I can tell you from this personal experience that the situation has gotten worse since 2020. The 2020 Homeless Assessment Report to Congress noted that the amount of individuals who are chronically homeless increased by 15% between 2019 and 2020. 

The Nashville area alone is experiencing a drastic increase in home value. During what some call “the great resignation”, tourists and new residents alike have flooded to the area even faster than before. And while Nashville likes to tout itself as a “party city”, Tennessee ranks as one of the highest states for substance abuse rates. With substance abuse comes higher incarceration rates, leading to another vicious cycle requiring wraparound support. Anyone who experiences any of these factors could end up homeless.

But these issues are starting to be heard more often. As a society, we’re paying more attention to the homeless communities. Headlines are being made across the nation of the growing homeless population, and as Christians, we’re called to help our neighbors. (Proverbs 19:17) 

What can we do with this knowledge?

As chronic homelessness continues to increase, it becomes a matter of political will. Homelessness does not have to be this chronic, but it requires our local governments to take this issue seriously and work to solve it, alongside community organizations, like Nashville Rescue Mission. It’s now a matter of taking what we’ve learned and putting it into action.

Here are a few things you and I can do to help to solve this issue.

Keep doing what works. Don’t stop investing money into homeless shelters or volunteering your time. That is a wonderful way to care for those who need help today.

Speak up. Write to your local government. Bring up the topic in your workplace and with friends. Be a part of creating awareness about the truth about chronic homelessness.

Don’t ignore our homeless neighbors. The next time you see someone with a cardboard sign, don’t avert your eyes. I challenge you to see them, strike up a conversation, ask them their name. While you can’t build a home in a matter of minutes, you might be able to restore someone’s dignity. 

Our nation will continue to grapple with the issue that is homelessness. The issue varies in each state, each community, but we must work to come together and learn from each other. I’ve traveled to Los Angeles, Portland, and Denver to meet with other rescue missions and learn how they have navigated their unique challenges to improve our own community here in Nashville.

Remember, if you’re eager to help, that change is needed at home first. Chronic homelessness exists in your area—that’s a great place to start.

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