Last year, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States.

Nearly two-thirds of people experiencing homelessness (358,422 people or 64 percent) were individuals and most of them were men. Texas alone accounts for five percent or 16,265 people who are homeless in the United States.

While the general public may have their own impression of homeless individuals, the truth is that the majority of them have had a personal crisis like job loss, divorce, domestic violence, major medical expense. or loss of a loved one. Many homeless persons suffer from untreated mental illnesses and physical disabilities. For persons living paycheck to paycheck, a major life event can make it difficult to pay their bills, and can even lead to a foreclosure leaving them homeless. Natural disasters like hurricane Katrina caused many families to lose their homes, and the cost of repairs for the homes remaining were too expensive for some families to afford.

Last year, two bills that fund the majority of low-income programs were given low priority, which had significant consequences in 2016. Funding for the Housing and Urban Development and Health & Human Services Bills remained far below the need. Homelessness is a large and persistent problem, and is worsened when rental costs increase. Only about one in four low-income families receive rental assistance, and waiting lists can be long. Recently, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2017 Housing and Urban Development funding bill. Included in this bill is over $27 billion for Public and Indian Housing. Other housing programs within the bill are funded at over $11 billion for the next ten years. This will increase rental and homeless assistance. This certainly is progress in the right direction, but criminal justice involvement among people experiencing homelessness remains a significant problem.

Many people who have entered emergency shelters or other homeless services were recently discharged from jail or prison. Anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of people experiencing homelessness have a history of incarceration. Homeless individuals without families are much more likely to be unsheltered. Two-thirds of chronically homeless individuals (or 54,815 people) stay in unsheltered locations such as under bridges, in cars, or in abandoned buildings. Some communities have passed laws or are considering policies that criminalize activities associated with homelessness, like sleeping outdoors, camping, eating, sitting on the street or parks, and soliciting money in public.

This is wrong because it punishes people who have no other options. We do know that there is a connection between racial disparities in the criminal justice system and racial disparities in homelessness. Hispanics or Latinos comprise 20 percent of the homeless population. People in families with children were more often Hispanic or Latino (26 percent) than all homeless people. Reducing these disparities should be a priority in our country. We must take action to break the cycle of incarceration and homelessness. Taking action would result in improved health and behavioral health problems, and increasing access to housing and other services needed to those who need a home.

Data suggests that the solution is to provide housing and remove barriers for people with criminal records who are experiencing homelessness. Creating opportunities for people to have permanent housing and mental health services should be our goal instead of incarceration. One approach that is a proven method to end homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, is called Housing First. Housing First allows individuals and families to access affordable housing as soon as possible with no time-limit, and provides support services to maintain their housing. Housing First is designed for people who are usually turned away from other agencies, and they do not require specific criteria to be met prior to eligibility like remaining sober or avoiding arrests.

Another useful tool is Permanent Supportive Housing which provides supportive services to people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and people with disabilities. They offer services to help people live independently, connect them to health care services, and employment services.

Ending homelessness is not an easy task. The cycle of criminal justice involvement in homelessness must end as it is not an effective strategy to end homelessness. What can we do in our communities to end homelessness? Encouraging our local governments to adopt the Housing First approach and Permanent Supportive Housing in its housing programs is the first step. These programs would be beneficial for people experiencing homelessness as they are proven to remove barriers and provide permanent housing stability.

The second step is to contact your mayor and ask him/her to publicly commit to ending Veteran Homelessness in your community through joining the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Mayors, county leaders, and governors can join by sending an email to [email protected] In Texas, the mayors of these cities have accepted the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness: Abilene, Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Crystal City, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Garland, Houston, Laredo, Plano, San Antonio, and Waco. I encourage you to do your part, and help your community join the effort to meet the challenge of ending homelessness. Once our communities are able to quickly connect homeless individuals to obtain permanent housing, our nation will accomplish its goal.