Millions of people endure homelessness each year in the United States. Some of them are hidden in plain sight, surfing the sofas of your neighbor’s living rooms, taking the backstreets in the same rundown RVs they sleep in, showering at the gym because they have no other way to access clean water, the weight of the world still on their shoulders long after the barbells have been set down. Others are more visible because they’re unsheltered, standing at the intersections, easily seen.
But how did they get here? What causes an individual, or sometimes an entire family, to wind up without a stable place to live? And how can this be happening to such a huge extent here and now, in the wealthiest country that has ever existed in world history during the most technologically advanced era on public record? The answer is complex.
There are many different pathways into homelessness; just like homelessness, some of these routes are more visible than others.
Our series Pathways into Homelessness highlights some of the lesser-known issues that can lead to homelessness, a dark path many can’t escape. Today, we zero in on the lack of access to transportation, a topic that has taken the back seat for far too long.
Lacking Access to Transportation is an Underreported Pathway into Homelessness
It might surprise you to learn that the inability to access transportation can drive people into homelessness and keep them there.
This is a particularly shocking fact right now, at a time when purchasing a vehicle has never been more expensive. Yet, this is precisely what researchers from the Urban Institute discovered when they set forth to study trends in economic opportunities for housing voucher recipients.
By examining data from two separate but related experiments with a combined total of more than 11,000 participants, these avid researchers ultimately determined that “both cars and transit access have a positive effect on earnings, though the effect for auto ownership is considerably greater.”
Furthermore, according to the study’s authors, “automobile access importantly influences employment outcomes and earnings for low-income households.”
Put simply, having access to a car puts low-income people in the proverbial driver’s seat, positioning them for success. Meanwhile, lacking access to a car creates a statistical disadvantage, a metaphorical rut where the tires keep spinning, and a vicious cycle of poverty ensues.
Access to Transportation is Deemed the Most Likely Factor Influencing Financial Well-Being
A study conducted by Harvard economists in 2015 showed that location is a key component in achieving income mobility – which, put simply, is an individual’s ability to outearn their parents and ancestors and increase their socioeconomic status.
The study, titled “The Impacts of Neighborhoods on Intergenerational Mobility,” honed in on the importance of place in pursuing economic success.
Drawing from the experience of roughly 5 million participants, the study concluded that location played a massive role in moving up the socioeconomic ladder because a better location often translates to better education, better jobs, better wages, lower crime rates, etc.
However, the study also suggested a strong correlation between a lack of access to transportation and homelessness. To quote the study’s authors:
“The relationship between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that between mobility and several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community.”
This means that individuals who lack access to transportation are automatically more vulnerable to poverty, which leads to homelessness.
Furthermore, low-income communities with insufficient public transit are also more prone to homelessness because they sport the highest levels of unemployment and offer the lowest wages overall.
Not having sufficient transportation can lead to homelessness in a wide variety of ways. Some of the most common include:
- Inability to get to work on time, which could lead to unemployment, missed raises and promotional opportunities, and a reputation for tardiness that follows from one job to the next
- Being pigeonholed into local employment positions that don’t pay a living wage
- Losing too much time conducting everyday tasks due to insufficient transit options
- Facing unfathomable barriers to education, healthcare, child care, and, in some cases, even nutritional foods
“I got kicked off the bus for not having an ID,” explained a stranded homeless man named Cornelius in an interview with Invisible People.
Getting kicked off of a Greyhound bus in the middle of his journey to Alabama was the tipping point that drove Cornelius into homelessness. He remained homeless for five years after the incident.
While his story might be unusual, it is a real-life example of how one bus ride could make all of the difference between having a stable place to live and falling unexpectedly into homelessness.
We Can’t Just Let This Ride: Talk to Your Lawmakers About the Right to Housing for All
Car ownership costs continue to increase, along with skyrocketing insurance rates and gas prices. With the median price of automobiles up 30% in just three years, the generation already priced out of homeownership is now experiencing immeasurable hardships in accessing transportation.
This is important because this lack of access to transportation can pave the way for even more homelessness in the future. Talk to your local lawmakers about creating social safety nets through transit and providing the right to housing for all.