Helping Homeless People Meet Basic Needs

By Victoria Palacio

In the United States, 549,000 people are homeless on any given night. When people think of homelessness, they typically imagine people sleeping on park benches or under bridges, but the homeless population includes children living in shelters with their parents, college students “couchsurfing” from apartment to apartment, and seniors sleeping in their cars in Walmart parking lots. This week, as we recognize Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, we are reminded of the importance of programs that connect people with housing resources. However, we must also ensure that people experiencing homelessness have access to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Medicaid, and other supports that help them meet basic needs. 

Homelessness is especially detrimental to the youngest segment of our population, yet unfortunately children in their first year of life experience the highest rates of homelessness. Family homelessness is primarily driven by the high cost of housing. Because workers earning minimum wage can’t afford a modest two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country, many low-income families are at heightened risk of homelessness. The consequences of homelessness are devastating, destabilizing every aspect of one’s life. Accessing work, school, food, health care, and social services become difficult when one is faced with homelessness.

Long-term, quality affordable housing is the most efficient way to address homelessness. However, it is important that we advocate for the most effective practices to connect homeless people and families with SNAP, Medicaid, and other important support services they need. Despite common myths, homeless people are not barred from SNAP, and thanks to the Affordable Care Act, most states have expanded Medicaid to cover nondisabled childless adults, which has helped increase the number of homeless individuals who are insured. 

Unfortunately, those who are homeless face a number of barriers—such as not having a mailing address, reliable phone, or internet access—when it comes to applying for assistance programs and renewing benefits at redetermination. (Many homeless people have cell phones under the Lifeline program, but they may not have minutes for them.) Therefore, homeless individuals may particularly benefit from policies and practices that simplify access to these benefit programs. Such techniques include conducting interviews on the spot when people apply for SNAP benefits, or allowing them to call in “on-demand” for interviews, rather than at a pre-scheduled time that is sent by mail, which is obviously problematic for those without a mailing address. Additionally, states can use application information from other programs to ease the application process for Medicaid. 

None of these policies will fundamentally address the problem of homelessness. But they will make it a little easier for people experiencing homelessness to get food and health care, and thus help them to stay healthy, work, and care for their children.