Symposium focuses on homelessness and its statistics

Josh Leopold, senior research associate for the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., presented a lecture focused on the rise of homelessness Wednesday.

Logan Metzger

Iowa State’s College of Design hosted its first-ever Homelessness Symposium on Wednesday.

The symposium started at 8 a.m. with a welcome by Francis Owusu, department chair of the community and regional planning department.

“Today, more than ever, there is a shortage of housing units that low-income people can afford,” Owusu said. “As the gap between income and housing costs grows more people face homelessness.”

This symposium would not have been able to happen without the Gordon Family Endowment from Rose Gordon and LaVern Gordon, parents of an Iowa State alumna.

Rose Gordon spoke during the welcome, explaining why the family helped with the symposium.

“Our daughter Christine graduated from ISU with a degree in community and regional planning with an emphasis on affordable housing,” Gordon said. “While she was a student here she volunteered all four years for Habitat for Humanity, and this fostered for her a passion for housing for all people. As we go about our days […] we see the homelessness in our communities. We strongly feel that anyone could be in that situation.”

The first event of the symposium was a keynote by Josh Leopold, a senior research associate for the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

Leopold’s keynote focused on the rise of homelessness.

“In terms of homelessness as we know it, there has always been some level of people experiencing homelessness in the United States,” Leopold said. “Homelessness as we think of it now really emerged in the 1980s and that was really the first time you would see families experiencing homelessness, people with mental illnesses. The causes of that were several. First, you have a recession in the early 1980s, then you also had a big loss of naturally affordable housing.”

Other causes Leopold talked about included loss of single-room occupancies, federal disinvestment in affordable housing and deinstitutionalization of places like mental health institutions.

One point Leopold brought up during his keynote was the lack of a “right to shelter” nationally and in most states, including Iowa. Some places in the United States, like New York City, do however have a “right to shelter.” 

Leopold also spoke about two points in history where the United States has tried to assess the homelessness population.

The first was in the 1990s when the National Survey on Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients was started. The next was in 2000 when the Annual Homeless Assessment Report was created. It still continues to this day.

For 2018, the Annual Homeless Assessment Report stated on a single night roughly 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. About two-thirds, 65 percent, were staying in sheltered locations — emergency shelters or transitional housing programs — and about one-third, 35 percent, were in unsheltered locations such as on the street, in abandoned buildings or in other places not suitable for human habitation. 

The 2018 report also stated homelessness increased for the second year in a row. The number of homeless people on a single night increased by 0.3 percent between 2017 and 2018. Between 2017 and 2018, the unsheltered population increased by two percent, or 4,300 people.

The numbers for the report are recorded during the last 10 days of January, but the 2019 report has yet to be finalized.

Leopold discussed one group within the overall homeless population called “chronically homeless.” This group has been increasing in number since 2016 along with the overall population of homeless individuals.

“‘Chronically homeless individual’ refers to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months,” Leopold said.

For other populations, like veterans and families, Leopold reported that those populations have been slowly declining since 2006.

After Leopold’s keynote was a panel including Leopold as well as Eric Burmeister, executive director for Polk County Trust Fund and Amber Lewis, homeless programs manager for Iowa Finance Authority. The panel was moderated by Dan Kuhlman, assistant professor for community and regional planning.

Burmeister said that although he can only speak for Polk County, Iowa is also seeing similar trends to what Leopold pointed out, like an overall increase in the homeless population.

After a short break, the next keynote began. Kimberly Skobba, associate professor in financial planning, housing and consumer economics and director of the Housing and Demographic Research Center at the University of Georgia, presented the “Pathways of homelessness and housing instability among youth and families with children.”

During her keynote, Skobba presented some statistics relevant to low-income households and housing.

These statistics included how the national housing wage, which is the ability to afford a two-bedroom rental home, is $22.96; one-fourth of renters paid more than 50 percent of income for housing; one-half of renters paid more than 30 percent of income; and only 37 housing units are affordable for every 100 extremely low-income households.

“For low-income households, this is not a new crisis,” Skobba said. “Low-income households move frequently; they are often trading quality for affordability.”

Skobba presented a study that she conducted about “housing career patterns of low-income families,” which was meant to chart the reason why low-income families moved often and what that accomplished.

The study was conducted from 2006 to 2009 in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and consisted of 77 participants. Thirty-three lived in subsidized housing, 30 lived in rentals using housing vouchers and 14 were on a waiting list for those vouchers.

Two-thirds of the participants were single parents, 71 percent were a race other than white, 60 percent had less than high school education, 84 percent were female and most had incomes below 30 percent median.

Fifty-two percent were at one point homeowners or stayed in rental housing, while 48 percent stayed in lower-hierarchy housing, like staying with parents and friends or spending time in jail or as homeless.

For the homeowners, the average time spent as homeowners was 59.4 months before having to move. For renters, the average time spent as renters with a voucher was 31.6 months and without a voucher was 19.8 months. For those who stayed with parents, it was 15.3 months. For those in jail, it was 11.4 months. For the homeless, it was 11.8 months.

Skobba explained that the reason for the high rates of moving had to deal with one-quarter of the participants experiencing chronic instability, moving more than once a year.

“Most of the participants experienced housing instability episodically throughout their housing careers,” Skobba said. “Life events often triggered a period of instability, like divorce or break up, illness, eviction or death of a family member.”

Skobba also presented a second study she had worked on in 2015-2016 which looked at homelessness among college students.

The study consisted of 27 students enrolled in four-year colleges in Georgia over one academic year.

The age of the participants ranged from 18 to 29 with a median age of 20, three-fourths of the participants were black, 16 were women, 11 were men, 11 had been in foster care at some point and 24 had been homeless at least once since the age of 14.

“The overarching theme of the students’ biographical narratives starting at age 15 was that they were on their own at an early age,” Skobba said.

Skobba said there were three pathways to this independence. The first was no family, either through death or foster parents. The second was estrangement due to family disapproval, either from identifying as LGBTQIA+ or lack of acceptance from step-parents. The third was family dysfunction, either from parental substance abuse or mental illness.

After Skobba’s keynote was a panel titled “Homelessness Programs in Iowa,” which included Skobba as well as Angie Arthur, executive director of Polk County Continuum of Care, Marileigh Fisher, housing director for Community Housing Initiatives, and Emily Osweiler, executive director of the YMCA Supportive Housing Campus in Des Moines. The panel was moderated by Ted Grevstad-Nordbrock, assistant professor for community and regional planning.

After lunch, the symposium moved the College of Design for student case-study presentations. All of the students were from the Fall 2019 Contemporary Issues in Global Housing class.

The first presentation was “The Cano Martin Pena Community Land Trust in Puerto Rico” by Jessica Talbot, a graduate student in civil, construction and environmental engineering.

Talbot’s presentation focused on how the Puerto Rican government worked with the Cano Martin Pena community to create a land trust to improve the living conditions of the people living there.

The second presentation was “Architecture’s Relationship to Creation of Affordable Housing” by Robert Murrow, a senior in architecture.

Murrow’s presentation discussed how when architects are involved in the process of making affordable housing they are able to make the housing comfortable and more community-based rather than cold and prison-like.

The third presentation was “Room to Grow: A Radical New Approach to Alternative Housing” by Noah Torstenson, a senior in architecture.

Torstenson’s presentation focused on the rebuilding of Constitución, Chile, and how the group Elemental had to redesign the entire city in just over 100 days after a devastating earthquake.

The final student presentation was “Quayside Village, Vancouver: Is Sustainable Public Housing Attainable?” by Frances Nielsen, senior in community and regional planning.

Nielsen’s presentation focused on the Quayside Village housing development in Vancouver, Canada and how it supports a community-atmosphere.

The symposium wrapped up with a film screening of the film “PUSH” in the Kocimski Auditorium of the College of Design.

“PUSH” is a documentary film by Fredrik Gertten focusing on the global housing crisis.