The problem of finding a home in the West

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The problem of finding a home in the West

House prices are very high. The banks make a lot of money from mortgages. Rents are very expensive. It is not a surprise that there are more people living on the street. Wayne Ellwood looks at the problem of homelessness.


Living on the street. Only a quarter of families in the US receive housing assistance. © Nick Beer/Alamy Stock Photo

In Toronto many homeless people have died – on the street and under bridges. The Toronto Homeless Memorial is next to an inner-city church and next to one of the city’s biggest shopping malls.

Not far from the shopping malls they are building towers 50-60 floors high. They all want the best view of Lake Ontario. In the last ten years they have built many new buildings in the city centre. Most are luxury flats.

In the Toronto city centre they built nearly100,000 flats between 2012 and 2016. In older areas the average price of a detached home increased by 33 per cent in 2016. But180,000 people are on the waiting list for subsidized housing and the city has a $2.6 billion repair bill for social housing. If buildings are too expensive to repair, they sell them. There are 475 flats for sale this year.

The situation is the same in the industrialized world. The US has closed10,000 subsidized homes every year since the 1970s. The right to a home is in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more than 40 countries agree that housing is a human right. But the UN says more than 1.6 billion people across the world do not have a good place to live and more than 100 million are homeless. They go to temporary shelters or sleep in public buildings like railway stations or bus terminals. Others make homes on the pavement or make simple houses from what they can find.

In the global South millions live in slums from Mumbai to São Paulo and they move to the city to find work. They live in poor, unsafe houses. They don’t own the land and they don’t have water, sewerage or electricity. Often they can only live in these homes with the help of richer people. But they must move when the price of land increases.

But homelessness in the South is often because of money. They clear slums for international sports or expensive shopping malls. Natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, earthquakes), climate change, civil war and political conflict also mean that people must leave their homes.

In the West we often think a homeless person is a single, older man with no job who left his family, is alone, mentally ill, and addicted to alcohol or drugs. And for many people living on the street this is true.

But these homeless people are a small part of the problem. About 75 per cent of homeless people are not on the street. They are often women, teenagers, and children. They sleep in shelters or stay with friends or relatives. Women are most often homeless because of violence. One Canadian study found that 71 per cent of women were homeless because of violence.

It’s the same for young people. Most of them run away from home or their families make them leave or there is abuse. Homeless young people are easy to abuse. On the street they take drugs and are victims of violence and sexual abuse. In a report in 2013 York University found that 82 per cent of homeless young people are victims of crime, and more than 30 per cent are victims of sexual abuse.


The Toronto Homeless Memorial Wayne Ellwood

The problems

There are many reasons for homelessness but poverty is always a big reason. Badly paid, part-time jobs, trade unions losing power, the attack on the welfare state all mean that people are rushing to find jobs to pay their rent. Poor people do not have enough money for a nice home. The National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington says that a US worker with the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour needs to work 90 hours a week to have enough money for a one-bedroom flat. Young people with badly paid jobs, single families, disabled people, new immigrants, refugees, squatters, and the working poor all have this problem.

There is always the fear that they will lose their homes and have to move to another place because they cannot pay the rent.

The US sociologist Matthew Desmond says that if you’re paying 60-80 per cent of your income in rent, you will lose your home. In the US, Desmond says most of the people who lose their homes are mothers and children from Latino and African American areas. About one in five Black American women lose their homes because they cannot pay the rent.

Children from homeless families find school difficult and have mental health problems. They are often poor when they are adults.

There are not enough houses in the West that people can afford. Very expensive houses and wealth inequality means there is a very big increase in homelessness.

When we think that a house is for making money and not a simple human right, a house is not a place to live in but a way to make a profit. That is good news for the banks who make a lot of money from expensive mortgages. The New Economics Foundation says domestic mortgage lending in the UK has increased from 40 to 60 per cent of GDP since the 1990s.

Houses are big business. Houses are valuable if they are empty or have people living in them. If homes are empty, the number of homeless people increases. That is the quickest way to make a profit.

In Melbourne 20 per cent of flats owned by business are empty. In Chelsea and Kensington in London the number of empty flats increased by 40 per cent between 2013 and 2014.

For the average family a house is an impossible dream. There are more and more luxury flats in cities like Sydney, Auckland, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Vancouver. But homeless shelters are full, food banks can’t get enough food. and the number of houses people can afford stays the same or goes down.

It is clear the housing market is for the rich.


A young Angolan boy near an open sewer in Luanda. People who live in slums are often victims. Novarc Images/Alamy Stock Photo

When there are badly paid jobs and there are not enough social benefits, paying the rent means less money for food, transport, clothing, healthcare, and school supplies.

The UK housing charity, Shelter, says that nearly 40 per cent of renters are at risk of not paying the rent.

A fifth of all renting families in the US spend half their income on housing. Desmond says, ‘Families who spend more on housing spend less on their children,’

The right to buy your own house

Thirty years ago UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher introduced ‘right-to-buy’. Since then, people have bought more than 1.8 million council homes. They have replaced fewer than 10 per cent of those. This means there is less housing that people can afford. From April 2012 to November 2015 people bought more than 40,600 homes under the right-to-buy plan but they have built only 3,694 social homes. And there are £5 billion fewer housing benefits and 45 per cent less money for help for homeless people.

Shelter says more than 250,000 people are homeless across Britain. In London high rents and house prices mean working people cannot buy a home. Councils are sending homeless families to other parts of the country where rents are cheaper - 300% more in the past five years.

In the US things are the same. Only a quarter of American families that can have housing assistance receive it. In Washington, DC the waiting list is more than 20 years.

In 2011he British charity, Crisis, said that homeless people live 30 years less than average. They are also nine times more likely to commit suicide and twice as likely to die of infections. In British Columbia in Canada homeless people live half as long other people.

Homelessness is also expensive. It’s cheaper for someone to live in a house than to be homeless. The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness says that people who live in Florida pay $31,000 a year for each homeless person on transport, hospital visits, policing. and jails. It costs only $10,000 a year for a house, job training, and healthcare.

Most people who work with the homeless understand this.


But there has been a big change in the last ten years. Housing First finds homes for the homeless as the first step. Give people choice and control over their homes. Give help and counselling, and they are more likely to have a better life.

Housing First is important but it’s not enough.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).