Homeless shelters in Fort Worth have surpassed capacity and community leaders fear the situation could worsen as winter draws near. Harris College students recently had the opportunity to participate in a poverty simulation where they walked a mile in the shoes of someone living in poverty.
Ashley Palmer, assistant professor of social work at TCU Harris College’s department of social work discusses the current homelessness issue and how it affects youth and young adults in our community.
What does your research focus on?
Palmer: I am interested in understanding the current policies and programs in the United States that assist young people as they move from adolescence into young adulthood. My goal is for my research to help improve supports that will ensure healthy development for youth and young adults (YYA) who experience economic inequity and other forms of oppression or marginalization. Healthy development includes having a safe, stable, affordable place to live; along with access to mental and physical health care; education, training and employment opportunities; and community engagement.
Poverty and economic inequality affect all areas of healthy development. In 2021, 5.1 million YYA, which is 19% of the 18- to 24-year-old population in the U.S., had incomes below the federal poverty line. Young adults ages 16 to 24 represent 20% of workers making hourly wages, they are almost 50% of workers who earn at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. This increases the chances of experiencing housing insecurity and food insecurity, especially if one does not have a family safety net. My research focuses on these young people, who may struggle to maintain connections to school, work and a livable wage.
Why is it important for students to learn about poverty through a simulation?
Palmer: Poverty is something that students read and learn about in some of their college courses, alongside movies, music, news and social media. However, when we are removed from a situation like poverty, we tend to think about it as something that happens to others, and we also tend to make assumptions about whom it affects and how it might be resolved. Our ability to understand and address the structural determinants of poverty requires making a real-life connection to it. This simulation environment helps the students who have not experienced poverty to begin to comprehend the way poverty shapes one’s life, including their physical and mental health. Further, it highlights that many people who are not living with incomes below the poverty line are one paycheck away from being there.
What is the connection between poverty and homelessness?
Palmer: There are various factors that contribute to experiencing homelessness including domestic violence, unemployment, poverty, inability to pay rent, rising rental housing costs, and sometimes having a serious physical or mental disability. While there is complexity in the causes of experiencing homelessness, financial insecurity and unaffordable housing options make it difficult for people to remain housed or become re-housed.
In Tarrant County, this is a growing issue. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology cost of living calculator shows that in Tarrant County, Texas, an adult with one child would need to earn $33.11 an hour and work 40 hours a week to support their family. Housing is one of the biggest costs households have, so when income drops significantly and/or housing costs go up substantially, it affects people’s ability to remain housed. Affordable housing is considered to be spending no more than 30% of the household’s gross monthly income on housing-related costs like rent or mortgage and utilities. Spending more than that is classified as experiencing housing cost burden. The City of Fort Worth reported that in 2018, one-third (33%) of Fort Worth households spent more than 30% of their gross income on housing. In the DFW area, rent has increased substantially over the past year so it is not surprising to see an increase in the numbers of individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
How many people are homeless in United States and in the Fort Worth area?
Palmer: According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in January 2020, 580,466 people experienced homelessness in the United States, and 27,229 of them lived in Texas. According to the most recent data shared by the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, between January 1, 2022 and October 31, 2022, 4,519 households were experiencing homelessness in Tarrant County, with about 1,200 people experiencing homelessness per day.
Who experiences homelessness in Fort Worth area?
Palmer: Stereotypes of homelessness often characterize people who experience homelessness as lazy or dangerous and are hyper-focused on substance misuse and serious mental illness. I think it is important for us to acknowledge that the majority of people experiencing homelessness do not fit that stereotype. People who experience homelessness include survivors of interpersonal or family violence, survivors of human trafficking, LGBTQ+ YYA who were unsupported by their family, military veterans, people who have a severe mental illness or a substance misuse disorder, families with children, and adults without children.
What do you believe is the solution to homelessness?
Palmer: Because poverty and income inequality are inextricably linked to housing insecurity and homelessness, to address homelessness requires addressing disinvestment in communities, inequitable financial structures, and income and wealth inequality. It requires a shift in our thinking about housing and who deserves it—one that acknowledges that having a safe, stable place to live is a basic human right. That, in turn, requires a shift in how we (society) think about things like wages and safety net supports, as well as the funding and delivery of different types of housing programs. In the U.S., one out of four households that qualify for housing assistance receive it. Right now, there are not enough rental units available at a price that people living with poverty level incomes—or even those living just above the poverty level—can afford. Depending upon the community, its current resources and its needs, this likely includes a mixture of housing options such as increasing subsidized housing, permanent supportive housing, transitional housing, and rapid rehousing opportunities.
What do you feel is important for our readers to know about homelessness in Fort Worth?
Palmer: I hope people might take a couple of things away from this piece. First, the stereotypes we associate with homelessness create an image that prompts us to be fearful. This fear can make us want to ignore the issue or blame people. However, the cost of housing and low wages are the primary drivers of homelessness. By supporting housing development in our communities, we can help reduce and eventually solve homelessness. Second, the Fort Worth community is working hard to help move people out of homelessness. The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition and its partners have created a system that prioritizes helping people get housed as quickly as possible, with the level of support most appropriate to their situation. They are putting money into building physical housing units that will be affordable for individual and families with very low income, in addition to their other projects and services, to help households exit homelessness. While there is still much work to do, I believe the efforts being made are moving in a direction that will end homelessness for a large number of households.
How would you recommend students at TCU become more engaged in positively impacting the homeless community in Fort Worth?
Palmer: There are a few different ways students can get involved. First, students can learn more about poverty and homelessness, and educate their friends, families and neighbors. This is important because we must dispel myths about poverty, which is a leading cause of homelessness, in order to reduce stigma about experiencing homelessness. Second, students can let local elected officials know that they support housing development in Fort Worth. Third, students can reach out and offer to volunteer with the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition or any of their partner agencies such as WhenWeLove, SafeHaven, CitySquare, MHMR Tarrant County Homeless Services, or Cornerstone and many others. Essentially, students can give their time, their money, and depending upon what community agencies need, their stuff.