By Liona Muchenje, Staff Writer
Never in my wildest expectations did I imagine that I would one day be asked for spare change by homeless people on the streets of Berkeley, California. In my mind, there was no place for poverty and homelessness in America.
While growing up in Zimbabwe, I envisioned America as the epitome of economic prosperity. It seemed common knowledge that America was a place where each and every citizen thrived and enjoyed the best quality of life. You can imagine how shocked I was when I landed in San Francisco. I saw tons of homeless people, including mothers with children, living on the streets. This was heartbreaking and disorienting. I had many unanswered questions. How could these people be homeless in a country with the largest and most robust economy in the world?
During my four years at UC Berkeley, I could not stop thinking about homelessness and possible solutions. How could I ignore it when the sidewalk on my way to class was full of homeless people who kept asking me for spare change or food? How could I not feel uncomfortable when I saw fragile, old homeless people sleeping on warm grates and vents on the streets to shield themselves from the cold weather?
I asked as many Bay Area residents as I could what they thought about the situation. Their answers centered around the following three explanations:
- These people had a major health issue and had to be absent from work for long periods of time and eventually could not afford housing.
- These people are ex-veterans dealing with mental health challenges such as PTSD.
- These people are part of a radical counterculture that embraces being homeless on purpose.
It seems that each person I talked to based their analysis on anecdotal evidence. They had made their conclusion based on a single encounter with a homeless person. There are many other categories of homelessness that they missed. For example, there are homeless people who are actually employed full-time, but cannot afford the ever-rising cost of housing. What is even more alarming is the fact that there are many Americans who are one missed paycheck or two away from being homeless. Another worrying factor to consider is that homelessness is spreading to many cities in America, including Phoenix. Maricopa County reported 2,059 unsheltered individuals in 2017, an increase of 25 percent from the previous year. Maricopa County also reports 54 percent of Arizona’s homeless population, at 22,092 individuals during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The future looks bleak for housing costs and this demonstrates the need for imperative action to solve this crisis.
I have come to appreciate the complexity of homelessness in America and I still cannot suggest any single viable solution. However, I truly believe there is room for the United States to learn from other developed countries that have low levels of homelessness. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to look for inspiration and strategies from Japan, Canada, Denmark or Finland. The reason why I suggest a global perspective on this issue is because homelessness has become so politicized and emotionally charged that many Americans have formed opposing camps on the issue. As homelessness continues to skyrocket in many cities in the United States, I keep looking forward to seeing more productive approaches to the problem rather than endless debates that lead nowhere.