Everyone living on the street, temporarily or chronically, has their own story of how they got there. Rarely is it just one reason or moment that paved the way to homelessness. More commonly, it's a perfect storm of circumstances. Within this downpour of misfortune is a mixture of:

Economic Hardship/Lack of Affordable Housing

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the nation is currently facing one of the most severe affordable housing crises in history. Nationally, more than 8 million people are forced to spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent. Doing so leaves less than half for necessities such as childcare, food, medicine, and transportation.

For this reason, millions of people have lost their homes and are currently “doubled-up,” meaning they’re in a shared living arrangement, often with friends or family, due to economic hardship and necessity. Today, insufficient income and lack of affordable housing are the leading causes of homelessness.

In the city of Erie, more than one in four people live in poverty. That’s nearly three times higher than the national average. Low income is often the result of many factors. Some of these factors may include a person contending with a:

  • Challenging labor market
  • Limited education
  • Gap in work history
  • Criminal record
  • Lack of reliable transportation
  • Disability or illness

Now let's look at Erie's poverty level through the lens of housing. The Federal Poverty household income is $12,760 (individual) and $26,200 (family of four). The average rent for apartments in Erie, PA, in 2022 is between $1,005 and $1,717 (or $12,060 and $20,604 annually), depending on the number of bedrooms. By analyzing housing expenses alone, it's easy to see how the bleak road to homelessness begins.

As of November 2022, there is not a single state that has an adequate supply of affordable rental housing for the lowest-income renters. Nationally, only 36 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low-income renter households.

“There is a lot of homelessness downtown, and there is a good reason for that. That’s where the resources are,” says Peter. “It’s so visual. I think it’s why some people think the community isn’t doing anything.” 

Health Issues

When it comes to the relationship between health issues and homelessness, it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other begins. They’re inextricably linked, and one can exacerbate the severity of the other. 

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that people living in shelters are more than twice as likely to have a disability as the general population. Further, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness found that nearly three in four adults living in permanent supportive housing (PSH) had a mental health disorder, substance use disorder, or co-occurring mental health and substance use disorder. They continued by noting that more than one in four (27 percent) also had a physical disability, and more than 6 percent had a developmental disability.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a major factor in homelessness. According to a National Center for Children in Poverty study, 80 percent of mothers experiencing homelessness are victims of domestic violence. Moreover, thirty-eight percent of all domestic violence victims will become homeless at some point in their lives.

In cases of domestic violence, there is an immediate need for survivors to flee their homes and find emergency shelter. However, beyond supplying shelter, survivors also often require supportive services to help them heal from trauma and safely leave the abusive relationship.

Racial Inequality

While progress has certainly been made, the repercussions of America's oppressive past are still impacting minority groups. For instance, the poverty rates in Erie County among black and Hispanic people are 47.22 and 54.47 percent, respectively. Contrast these figures with the 13.71 percent of white people who live in poverty.

In Erie and across the nation, minority groups deal with significantly higher rates of:

  • Healthcare inaccessibility
  • Incarceration
  • Poverty 
  • Rental housing discrimination

Ultimately, this asymmetry in homelessness is a result of systemic inequity.

A Choice?

While it may be difficult for non-homeless individuals to imagine, some homeless people may choose to be homeless. In fact, many anthropologists and archaeologists argue that there is a strong sense of community and culture embedded in homelessness. Further, to believe there is no choice actually minimizes the agency of these people. 

"Homelessness is a culture in and of itself," notes Darrell Smith, chief executive officer of the Erie City Mission. The Erie City Mission provides programs and resources for people battling homelessness and addiction. "It's a community, and there are rules to being homeless that they all abide by."

As with any culture, there are unspoken rules, philosophies, and social norms. The culture of homelessness even has subcultures, especially between people who live in shelters and those on the street. For example, encampments aren't just havens for drug use and violence, despite what many people think. They're a place for mutual aid, potlatches, and protection.

“Some people don’t want to be in a shelter… They remain fiercely independent about remaining homeless,” Darrell says. “It's interesting when people think we can eradicate homelessness. I’m not sure that you can.”

On the flip side, others argue that there is no choice and that the sheer notion that some homeless people have one is a dangerous narrative. 

No matter what you believe, most people ultimately blame it on some fault of our system.

One point of view is that our system is completely broken. Another perspective is that of an illusion of a broken system. This is to say, there are no broken systems; there are only systems designed to produce a given result.

Therefore, homelessness is simply a product of our current societal system. This idea is pretty compelling, especially if you look at how the distribution of wealth has gradually shifted in favor of the ultra-wealthy.

At the end of the day, whether some people have a choice or not doesn't entirely matter. What matters is that we find solutions that do not minimize the agency of an already marginalized group.