Over 40% of homeless in U.S. have a disability

Every morning when I take my Seeing Eye dog out for her “constitutional” we pass the same homeless man sitting on a crate. “StreetWise!” he calls out. “Can you give a little help today?” StreetWise is a newspaper sold by homeless people in Chicago. The concept is that by selling StreetWise, people down on their luck might get back on their feet.

I’ve always nodded and smiled the vendor’s way as we pass. Since I can’t see to read, though, I never bought one of his papers. Until last December, that is. I left Hanni at home that day to go Christmas shopping with a friend — crowds can be so fixated on shopping that they step on my Seeing Eye dog. I cabbed home on my own afterwards, and when I fumbled with my white cane at the curb I heard a familiar voice call out to me. “Want some help?” he asked.

It was the StreetWise vendor. I grabbed his arm, and from the way my hand pumped up and down as we plodded to my doorway I could tell he had a very bad limp. When we finally arrived, I held out a bill that had one corner folded and asked for a copy of StreetWise. “They only cost two dollars,” my helper said. “You’re giving me a five.”

“I meant to give you a five,” I said, showing him how I fold money to keep track of the denominations. “Thanks for the help. Merry Christmas!”

J.T. and I have been friends ever since. “Hello Mizz Lady!” he calls out to me as Hanni and I pass him in the morning. And if we go a different way, and we don’t pass him, J.T. notices. “I didn’t see you earlier,” he’ll say. “I was worried.”

Kristina Chew’s autism blog at change.org refers to a story in the July 16 issue of Disability Scoop that says more than 40 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. are people with disabilities. I wish I could say this statistic surprised me. If anything, I thought the percentage would be higher. Chew quotes from the 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, which was issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Among adults, 17.7 percent of the U.S. population had a disability whereas an estimated 42.8 percent of sheltered homeless adults had a disability. A disability, particularly one relating to substance abuse or mental health issues, can make it difficult to work enough to afford housing.

The report points out that people with disabilities are an even higher share of the homeless population than the people who are poor. This suggests that people with disabilities face additional difficulties — more than those who are poor — when it comes to accessing permanent housing.

People with disabilities may have difficulties searching for a unit or finding a landlord willing to rent to them. Their disability may make it less easy to accommodate them without adaptive supports.

The one statistic from this report that did surprise me was this one about Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI). I didn’t realize SSI payments fell so far below the poverty level.

The average annual SSI payment is about 44 percent below the poverty level, and thus people with disabilities who lack a sufficient work history to qualify for SSDI—common among people with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues — are more susceptible to deep poverty.

Chew notes that the inability to work (or not being given the opportunity to work regardless of one’s skills) often puts the price of housing out of reach. This is a scary thought for those of us who have disabilities, and especially for people who have disabilities that are less obvious. Autism, for example. No wonder we read so many stories about adults with autism still living at home with their parents. The homelessness blog at Change.org reviews the Homeless Assessment Report and suggests that what especially needs to be looked at is performance. “Certainly there are programs and initiatives set up,” says Kristina Chew. “But what is actually working, and what is not?”


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