According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, on any one night in 2017, 553,742 people were homeless in the United States. This represents an increase of about one percent since 2016. Though in some regions progress has been made in tackling this social problem, in many high-cost areas – especially along the West Coast – a shortage of affordable housing is driving upward the number of homeless individuals. Though Seattle is the 18th largest city in the country, it has the third largest homeless population (11,643), just behind New York (76,501) and Los Angeles (55,188), and followed by San Diego (9,160), District of Columbia (7,473), San Jose/Santa Clara (7,394) and San Francisco (6,858).
While African Americans make up 13% of the country’s population, they represent 41% of people experiencing homelessness. Native Americans and Hispanics, too, are disproportionately impacted by this social problem. The higher prevalence of homelessness among minority populations is the result of institutionalized discrimination in employment, housing, and the criminal justice system. Homelessness, in this sense, is a symptom of inequalities of place and of the compounding effects of poverty, social exclusion, and the retreat of public institutions.
As key actors in the social welfare system of the United States, faith-based organizations (FBOs) – including congregations and faith-inspired non-profit organizations – have long contributed to addressing homelessness. FBOs play an important role in the governance of local Continuum of Care programs. They provide about 30% of emergency shelter beds and have the capacity to house more than 150,000 people a night in different types of housing (National Alliance to End Homelessness). And they mobilize crucial support for community initiatives like tent encampments and advocate for enabling policies and legislation.
In addition to social service provision and advocacy, FBOs also care for the spiritual needs of homeless individuals. This focus on holistic care grounds the unique contributions FBOs make to the issue. It is the conviction, for example, that homelessness cannot be reduced to a problem that needs fixing. That it needs to be understood in terms of restoring right relationships. It is the idea that public theologies and prophetic voices are essential for a just society and a flourishing democracy.