Anyone can become homeless. All it takes is one tragic misstep that winds up leading to a bad sequence of events. You don’t become homeless without suffering. The brokenness of the homeless comes in many forms: Broken dreams, broken hearts, broken bodies, broken minds, and broken souls.
People who have never been homeless have many different reactions to those who are living on the streets. Some make a judgment, declaring the homeless to be weak or lacking in character, as though they are guilty of moral failure. Rash judgments about how the homeless got that way give some people permission to have complete disregard for their humanity.
We walk around them as though they are not there. We pretend we don’t see them. We often look away.
One woman who does not look away from the homeless is Rajni Shankar-Brown, Ph.D. Dr. Shankar-Brown is the Executive Board Member of the National Coalition for the Homeless, the Founder and Executive Director of the Poverty and Homelessness Conference, and the Endowed Chair of Social Justice Education at Stetson University. While her credentials demonstrate her specific expertise, helping to end and prevent homeless is her calling—her life’s work. She is a passionate advocate who gives a voice to those who, collectively, have often been ignored, marginalized, or silenced.
The story of Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown and why she works tirelessly to tackle an enormous problem has deep roots and spans back several decades to her family’s origins in India. Rajni (pronounced r ah j n ee) was born in Washington D.C. and grew up in the Northern Virginia area. As a child she also spent time living in India to help take care of her grandmother who had cancer. Poverty and the homeless made an indelible impression.
As far back as she can remember, the homeless have always been with her. There was never a time in her life when she was not aware of poverty. Her father, who came from an economically disadvantaged community in India, was given a full scholarship to Howard University, where he intended to study to become an engineer. This was back in the 1960s. Although his scholarship covered the cost of his tuition, all other costs, room and board, living expenses and books, were not covered.
Dr. Shankar-Brown’s mother was a prearranged bride who gave up her dream to become a medical doctor, and instead was married. The couple struggled in the United States, working hard to survive and often reliant upon the resources that were shared in the community. By the time Rajni was born, her parents were committed to raising children who were aware of poverty and had a strong consciousness about homelessness.
There was a time when Americans looked eastward to India, to cite this nation of over one billion, nearly 17.7% of the total world population, as a hot zone for the homeless and poverty. In the latter part of the Twentieth Century, the prayerful countenance of Mother Teresa became the global face that reflected India’s homelessness and poverty. Many of us remember Mother Teresa’s words in 1994, “The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people.” Her words have almost become prophetic. The west has long been mired in its own bastion of spiritual poverty. Its skyrocketing income inequality has now given rise to great physical poverty and the unprecedented rise of homelessness in America.
As we approach the first quarter of the Twenty-first Century, India is no longer viewed by the world as the primary hot zone for homelessness and poverty. Ironically, it is the oft-perceived wealthy United States that is unable to get an accurate assessment of how many Americans are homeless. One statistical tracker, statista, asserted that in 2019 there were about 567,715 homeless people living in the United States. It is further asserted that the number of homeless had been steadily decreasing for over ten years. But then things changed. As of 2017 the number began spiking again, and this was before the pandemic hit. With all due respect to the mounting numbers of the homeless, it is now coming to light that not only do we lack accurate current information about the growing homeless population, but the true numbers of the homeless might not be known for years.
The Great Unaccounted
How can you accurately count a population that is perpetually on the move and has no forwarding address? According to an op-ed issued by the editorial board of the New York Times this past January, there is the stark admission that “We don’t know exactly how many people are homeless in America. We don’t even have a particularly good guess.” Attempts made by state, local and federal governments to get an actual head count of the homeless are not only ineffective but inept.
A typical head count might mean government agency staff workers collect the numbers of the homeless that have been reported at shelters on a given night, without taking into account the numbers who are unsheltered, sleeping in abandoned buildings, alleys and parked cars, and in front of doorways. Others are doubling up and couch surfing, by relying on friends or the kindness of strangers. Dr. Shankar-Brown is quick to point out, “Even when we see numbers in the media and in reports, those of us who are at the ground level know these numbers are severely underestimated because of the way we do counts in the U.S. and the diverse dynamics of homelessness.”
Compounding matters further, many cities routinely clear out homeless encampments. For example, last year in New York City officials doubled the number of “cleanups” by clearing out people who were already displaced. These actions were contrary to the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that advised cities to allow the homeless to shelter in place. The CDC explained that clearing encampments “increases the potential for infectious disease spread” by causing people to “disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”
There are many reasons why a person becomes homeless. Substance abuse, alcoholism and mental illness are the usual suspects but they minimize the full brunt of economic reality and the widening gap between those who have money and those who do not. People with low incomes are the most at risk of becoming homeless, and this is largely due to the lack of affordable housing and the lack of a fair living wage. Dr. Shankar-Brown notes, “There is always a prevalent assumption that if an individual experiencing homelessness would just get a job, then they could pay to keep a roof over their heads. The reality is more than 40% of people experiencing homeless are working two jobs and still do not have a home because they cannot afford one. Millions of individuals, families, children and youth are lacking basic human rights and trying daily to survive in a system that has been rigged.”
The most recent report issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), shows that the number of the known homeless in the United States rose for the fourth straight year. About 580,000 people were counted as living on the streets or in temporary shelters at the start of 2020. But this data was reported prior to the pandemic and reveals that homelessness was already rising, especially in the large cities. Also prior to the pandemic, homelessness among veterans and families did not get better. The fact that homelessness among veterans and families is not improving is cause for alarm because the government deployed federal housing programs that specifically targeted veterans and families.
From the time Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown was a child until she became a young adult, she spent her days volunteering in soup kitchens. When she went to a shelter to play with her friends, they didn’t have food to eat. It was the same way in India. Along the road in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) she traveled to school accompanied by her brother. There were large numbers of children begging for food. She saw her own face in the faces of these children and wanted to know why this was happening. “Why as a society are we allowing this to happen?” Whether Rajni was traveling through India or the United States, she came to know there is never just one story about how a person becomes homeless. “It is imperative to understand there are many stories and they are all very different, and yet all deeply interconnected,” Shankar-Brown explained.
Who are the Homeless?
Black and Latino communities have disproportionately high numbers among the homeless. According to the latest HUD data, as reported in the New York Times, the numbers speak for themselves. “About 40 percent of people counted were Black, compared with their 13 percent representation in the population, and nearly a quarter of homeless people self-identified as Latino, a group that makes up about 18 percent of all Americans.” Other data derived from the National Alliance to End Homelessness indicates “Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are most likely to be homeless in America when compared to all other racial/ethnic groups.”
Proportionately speaking, in general, 17 out of 10,000 people experience homelessness, whereas with Pacific Islanders and Native Americans, 160 out of 10,000 experience homelessness.
HUD conducts an annual Point-in-Time Count. Typically the head count is made on a cold winter night in January. The prevailing assumption is cold weather makes the homeless get off the street to seek shelter indoors. Data from a head count made in January 2019 showed that the homeless are coming from every region of the country and represent every family status, gender category, racial and ethnic group. The data shows single individuals account for 66.7 percent of the homeless, with the remaining 33.3 percent are families (adults and children). Further calculations show 7.2 percent are veterans and 7.4 percent are unaccompanied children and young adults.
What about the Children?
Dr. Shankar-Brown notes while the homeless do not figure neatly into any one category, families with children are the fastest growing sector. The reasons are manifold: the lack of a fair living wage coupled with the severe lack of affordable housing makes home ownership impossible. Other factors point to racial discrimination, and the lack of accessible and affordable healthcare. For example, people who have disabilities often don’t have access to get good healthcare. Other factors such as addiction treatment and mental health services are inadequate to meet the needs of the homeless and of people who are on the verge of losing the roof over their heads. Dr. Shankar-Brown said, “I’ve known many folks who fell into homelessness and then fell into substance abuse.” This is the opposite of the assumption that substance abuse caused a person to become homeless. Instead it was the despair of being homeless that led to addiction. Substance abuse became a coping mechanism to endure the suffering and hardship of being homeless.
“Why is this happening?” Dr. Shankar-Brown asks. “Why as a society are we allowing this to happen? Why are ‘we the people’ allowing this kind of pain and suffering to exist in the United States when we have more than enough resources to share?”
Dr. Shankar-Brown’s own son is seventeen. She describes her son, Valen Siddhartha, as an amazing young activist. He recently designed a T-shirt in which all of the proceeds were given to a local emergency shelter. Her ten-year old daughter, Romila Sitara, also helps out in shelters. Over winter break, Romila worked with the community to collect hundreds of socks and create essential hygiene bags. Already they are following in her footsteps to become aware of poverty and to have a strong consciousness about homelessness, the same way her parents taught her. “Valen and Romila are asking heavy questions, that I also asked as a child and continue to grapple with today. They already feel the fractures of our world,” she said.
Returning to the cogent reality of numbers: According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2018 Report in Income and Poverty in the United States, 38.1 million people, or 11.8 percent of the population, live in poverty. Those who live in poverty struggle to afford basic necessities, especially housing. At any given moment in America, families everywhere are on the verge of becoming homeless. Of the approximately 38.1 million people who live in poverty, most experience a severe struggle to pay for the cost of their housing. It only takes one event, maybe the loss of a job or declining health or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or a tornado, that can send people reeling into the street.
Dr. Shankar-Brown puts a human face on the untold damage that homelessness does to children. She mentions Jazz, a young girl who is soon to be a ‘tween. Everything Jazz owns is in a little shopping bag. Jazz lives in a tent with her mother. They made the tent that they live in from tarp and duct tape. During routine clean-ups, the police tear down their tent. Jazz never feels safe. She does not know from one day to the next, whether she will have a home, even if that home is only a tent.
Children become homeless for a whole host of reasons. Some are the children of an adult who is fleeing domestic violence. Other children are thrown out by their parents who disapprove of their child’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Children wind up homeless when they lose a parent to death, disease, or incarceration. Fifty percent of foster children become homeless once they turn 18. While there are many reasons why children become homeless, in all cases there is one constant—children find themselves in this predicament because they are poor.
Again, the numbers speak: “In 2009 it was estimated that one out of 50 children or 1.5 million children in the United States of America would experience some form of homelessness each year.” More recent data is close to that estimate. In 2017 the National Center for Education Statistics reported 1.35 million homeless students. Further, a study by Chicago University’s Chapin Hall shows 4.3 million youth (13+) experience homelessness annually. Shankar-Brown reminds us that these significant and heartbreaking statistics are also severely underestimated.
Whether the numbers of children who are homeless are current or outdated matters little when we consider that children who grow up in poverty are destined to be trapped in a cycle of poverty. How do children stand a chance of success in a world where the cards have already been stacked against them? “People are suffering in huge ways and we as a society are not meeting those needs,” said Dr. Shankar-Brown.
Where are the Homeless? They are Everywhere
No longer look eastward to India, look in your own backyard. States reporting the highest homeless counts include the populous states of California, Florida, New York, and Texas. Similarly, some of the nation’s densely populated cities also have high homeless counts: Los Angeles, New York City, San Jose, Seattle, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. While homelessness is most often identified with urban areas, suburban areas are not exempt, and rural homelessness accounts for 15 percent of the total. The rural homeless experience different problems from their urban counterparts. Often there is a complete lack of shelter and it’s difficult to find resources or medical care.
The onset of a pandemic is a surefire way to expose the growing fissures in an already dysfunctional society. The United States has been harmed for years by the widening gap of income inequality, where the operative tenet of the greed of a few at the expense of many is entrenched in our culture. During the pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of people, especially families, facing eviction and foreclosure, resulting in the loss of their homes. This might be a possible explanation for the increasing homeless population. One thing is certain, though: Of all at-risk groups, the homeless are uniquely situated to be in danger of becoming sick during the pandemic.
Now there is a mounting death rate for the homeless. In San Francisco, the department of public health reported that deaths tripled in what they defined as the unhoused population. A May 2020 report by Capital & Main stated that the deaths of the homeless increased by 32 percent in Los Angeles. Another report in Time, Inc. indicates that homeless deaths in Washington, D.C. increased by 54 percent. In New York City, the Coalition for the Homeless reported a death rate up by 75%.
Not all deaths are directly attributed to COVID-19. There are indirect factors that come into play. During 2020, many facilities that work with the homeless shut and services stopped. For example, in rural Wheeling, West Virginia, it was reported that “there was not one indoor shelter that was open from March until the fall of 2020.” For a population that is already at high risk, not having access to health services and shelters means the difference between life and death.
The Journey Among the Homeless
Dr. Shankar-Brown’s journey among the homeless spans the arc of her lifetime. One of her childhood projects involved creating a safe space for children at a nearby family emergency shelter. She saw that the children did not have a place to study—to be themselves, to play—to be children. “Through girl scouts I had opportunities to do projects,” she said. “This was going to be my project. I was so passionate because I knew such a space was missing and direly needed. Amma (mom) encouraged me and my leaders let me go.” She set about to get support from community leaders and businesses, and used the proceeds to buy books and board games, puzzles and art supplies. She worked with a local carpenter to build bookshelves and a small desk. She and her younger sister painted the space to be more cheerful for children. When the project was finished, seeing the children enjoy the space made all of the difference in the world to her—it was a lesson that even a small action can make a big difference.
As an undergraduate at George Mason University, she began looking at poverty from different angles and began thinking about it from a systems perspective and about what she could do to effect systemic and structural change. Then she was in terrible car accident, hit by a drunk driver in a head-on collision. She was on bedrest for over eight months and forced to postpone her college graduation. She had always been active, dancing Bharatanatyam (a classical dance style originating from India) and playing basketball, but now she couldn’t move. She spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting on the fragility of life. And she remembered how her family had experienced racism in Northern Virginia. There had been racist remarks. Their house had been vandalized. There were so many injustices she had observed or experienced. On a deep level she made a commitment that so long as she was alive she would live with intention and work to combat injustice. “How are you going to use your heartbeat?” she asked herself. And in her heart she kept coming back to ending and preventing homelessness.
Then she went on to teach. Her first teaching job was in Charlotte, North Carolina. She thought she would teach in a classroom and was instead assigned to teach in a single-wide trailer. Her students were predominantly Black. The school was underfunded. Many of her students were in homeless situations. “Even though I was their teacher,” she said, “they also taught me and challenged me to dig deeply into understanding systems of oppression and social inequality. It was a privilege to be invited into my students’ life stories and to learn alongside my students. My students inspired me to understand the systemic and intersectional pieces of racism and economic inequalities. Later this grew into an ethnographic dissertation, which has grown into public policy efforts and grassroots, transformative community engagement.” She received her Masters’ degree in teaching at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, then went on there to get her Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction with specializations in urban education and literacy education. Again her focus was immersed in poverty and homelessness.
Her move to accept a position at Stetson University in Central Florida was very intentional; the area has some of the highest instances of child poverty in the nation. Her work has been invigorated in a different way. There are more opportunities to do interdisciplinary work—her students work on hands-on projects directly with and in the community. It has always troubled her that there was never a place for kids to be kids in many emergency shelters, and that shelters were often in fact turbulent, chaotic and scary. In high school, she felt privileged because she would serve in shelters and in the streets, but she didn’t have to stay there. She could always return home. “So many, too many of our children and youth do not have stable housing. They have compounded layers of trauma. They lack fundamental civil and human rights. And this is unacceptable. We must do better,” she said.
It’s no wonder that many of the hands-on projects that Dr. Shankar-Brown is involved with encompass building play areas for children and creating a nourishing, safe place for kids, as well as creating inclusive learning environments for youth experiencing homelessness, spaces where their authenticity is embraced, and they are actively supported. Even a little corner for kids can offer comfort. Having a place to house books where kids can do their schoolwork and find toys and stuffed animals helps to nourish and heal the spirit of a child.
Today Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown is among the most prominent scholars in social justice in the United States and around the world. Her life’s work has taken her around the globe, where she presents on the most imminent issues impacting the lives of the homeless and facilitates learning to help advance equity in communities and schools. A far cry from being an ivory tower academic, Dr. Shankar-Brown is a civically engaged teacher-scholar working at a grassroots level to administer to the needs of the homeless—that is a place where she is most comfortable—doing the daily work to be among the communities she partners with and serves. She embodies the words of Dorothy Day who once said, “Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.”
Dr. Shankar-Brown has been with the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) for over a decade. The NCH is one of the oldest grassroots organizations to end and prevent homelessness in the nation. Aside from addressing homelessness and the root causes of poverty, the racial equity lens has also always been part of the conversation. The NCH also amplifies the experience of those with real life homeless experience to be part of their work. For the longest time, Shankar-Brown has been trying to get HUD to include people who have life experience with having been homeless in visioning, planning, and decision-making processes. Finally, this is coming to fruition. The NCH also has a speakers’ bureau, a mentorship program to help people find work and staff members who have had experience with having been homeless. Currently, Dr. Shankar-Brown and colleagues are also developing a homelessness peer support program as a national model.
In addition, the Poverty and Homelessness Conference, which Shankar-Brown founded, works with states and municipalities and different communities, including local museums, schools, non-profit organizations and faith-based communities. By bringing everyone together, action plans are created to provide support and resources. Dr. Shankar-Brown has helped former low-income students who have experienced homelessness gain access and financial support to college and career training. Many of these students are a part of the projects Shankar-Brown facilitates and even serve on the leadership team of the Poverty and Homelessness Conference, which she founded. “Many of our student leaders have experienced poverty and homelessness,” she said. “We don’t want the youth to only see themselves as being served. We give them the opportunity to serve so they can develop leadership skills.”
Shattering some of the stereotypes, myths and misunderstandings around homelessness is part of what drives Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown. Homelessness and poverty are huge problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. One sweeping policy for everyone does not work and can cause further marginalization. Recent opportunities have opened for the NCH to be part of a few meetings with President Biden’s team. The NCH is giving recommendations to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Many different organizations need to be on board to implement concerted action that can make a difference. “Much work still needs to be done,” Dr. Shankar-Brown said. “You can see the goodness that can be planted and grown when people come together and that kindles my work—that keeps me marching for justice.”