BY TAYLOR OWEN
You may not know it, but this is National Hunger and Homelessness Week.
Here in Billings homelessness is a persistent, growing affliction. Too many of our neighbors suffer without the stability and warmth that a familiar roof over the head offers. Welcome Home Billings (our local homelessness information nexus) reports that 2,500 people experience homelessness in Billings every year. Strikingly, 49% of these persons are in families and a stunning 40% of those experiencing homelessness are under 18 years of age.
When we hear the word “homeless,” most of us think of the people sleeping on the streets or at a mission, spending time in or around the HUB or begging downtown. The truth is a far greater number of people are homeless. According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a homeless person is sleeping:
1. Outside, or in a place not meant for sleeping
2. In an emergency shelter
3. In a domestic violence shelter
4. Motel or hotel paid for by a voucher
5. A transitional housing program for homeless persons
Another group we forget about in the conversation about homelessness is the precariously housed. These people, while not homeless, are shockingly close, and almost all homeless were once in this group.
In order to quantify the number of precariously housed we must start with the HUD’s definition of housing instability: tenants who spend 40+% of their income on housing. According to that definition an additional 15% of our neighbors [15,847 people] are straddling the uncomfortable line between housed and not housed. This is an issue that is directly hurting or actively haunting thousands in our community.
The 15% of the Billings this is precariously housed are among the most vulnerable of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck (38% of all Americans). These individuals have no meaningful savings to speak of. These people are by definition one bad week from homelessness. Should any emergency come about (disease, job loss, etc...) these people have no reserves with which to draw on to keep their rent checks coming.
The United Way of Yellowstone County and its partners work every day to provide services to those on the precipice of homelessness, and those who are already homeless: shelter to women and children; provide safe spaces and cheap meals for those who between homes; offer job trainings; provide rent and utility assistance to families that have having a down week but are housed. Please remember the homeless and precariously housed this week, know that there is an army on the streets every day working on this issue, but we are a community, and our efforts depend on you.