All they want for Xmas is a roof over their heads

While most look forward to the food, drinks and merriment around the new year, Mr Nathan Hunter-El and his wife Denise face the next few weeks with trepidation - the new year might mean the loss of a roof over their heads.

For the past two years, the couple have been squatting with family members or staying in cheap hotels. "We were in hotels two times last month," said Mrs Hunter-el, 51, who cannot work due to her rheumatoid arthritis. Mr Hunter-el, 47, works in night club security.

By the end of the month, they will no longer be able to stay with Mr Hunter-el's son due to housing restrictions and may find themselves on the streets.

On a single night in January this year, the number of homeless individuals in the US was 564,708, according to The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report released by The US Department of Housing and Urban Development last month.

While experts say it is difficult to compare the US to other developed countries because of different methods of data collection, there is no denying the huge homeless problem here which has been driven by higher housing costs, the lack of affordable housing units and wages that have not kept in step with costs.

"Housing affordability is what drives homelessness in the US... We are seven million units short of enough affordable housing for all the low-income renter households that need a place to stay," said Ms Nan Roman, president and chief executive of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).

And the effects of the recession are still being felt.

"Home ownership is down, so demand for rental is up; rents are going up but the growth in income is not as fast," added Ms Roman.

Nowhere is the problem more evident than in Washington, the nation's capital, which, when compared with other US states, has the highest rate of homelessness. The NAEH puts the figure at 119.9 homeless per 10,000 people.

The next highest homeless rate is in Hawaii with 49.3 per 10,000 people, followed by New York with 41.

The District of Columbia (DC) features so prominently because it is purely an urban area, which usually attracts more homeless individuals. It also has a "right-to-shelter" law, which kicks in when the temperature drops below freezing, thus driving up the numbers.

When compared with other cities, however, DC ranks sixth, with New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle topping the list. That said, "we are still not doing as well as we should do", said Ms Roman.

So part of the district's five-year plan to deal with the problem, starting this year, said Ms Kristy Greenwalt, executive director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, would be to "work with the employment sector to be thoughtful and strategic about growing different sectors and job training".

A sum of US$100 million (S$141 million) has also been committed to a Housing Production Trust Fund to build more affordable housing, she added, but it might take three or four years for those new units to be ready.

At a national level, US$5.1 billion was budgeted in the Financial Year 2015 for targeted programmes addressing homelessness, but experts say it is not enough.

According to Ms Roman, "it's not like there are no federal resources going into it... but we are just not keeping up".

Although progress is being made on many fronts, experts agree there is no silver bullet, so the immediacy of the problem will still be felt by many families, including the Hunter-Els, this winter.

Mr and Mrs Hunter-El, who are being helped by a non-profit organisation called Friendship Place, are now hoping to get approval for a private apartment that will cost them about US$800 a month.

"If we do get the apartment, we won't have to worry so much; we could have something to call our own," said Mrs Hunter-El.

This article was first published on December 22, 2015.
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