Bangor police along with homeless outreach workers and city officials visit the homeless encampment that has been growing along the Bangor Waterfront to offer resources and to inform them they need to vacate the area by Friday. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Donald Whitehead is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Joel Segal is the executive director of the Justice Action Mobilization Network, Both are former homeless shelter directors. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

On any given night in the United States, upward of a half-million people are homeless. And that doesn’t include the millions of others who are living hand-to-mouth in hotels, or doubled up with family members or acquaintances, in often highly stressful temporary housing situations.

A recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a shortage of more than 6.8 million affordable housing units for low-income Americans. “The crisis created by COVID-19 has made it clearer than ever that stable, affordable housing for all is an imperative for public health, individual well-being, and our country,” said Diane Yentel, the group’s president and CEO.

Thousands of Americans, many of whom are employed, are now living in deplorable tent cities. Meanwhile, those forced to live in homeless shelters are often subject to unsanitary conditions, a lack of personal privacy, and even physical or sexual abuse.

Gender and racial inequities and injustice make it harder for women to afford housing. Women and children account for 34 percent of the unhoused population, while Black families disproportionately represent 43 percent of the unhoused.

“Women remain vulnerable to homelessness because of gender based violence, gender wage gaps and employment protections such as paid sick leave, family paid leave and affordable and accessible childcare,” said Christian F. Nunes, president of the National Organization for Women.

The United States Congress and President Joe Biden have a historic opportunity to end the nation’s homelessness crisis, which adversely impacts people from all walks of life, including veterans, families, women and children.

This is why the National Coalition for the Homeless and the Justice Action Mobilization Network are launching an unprecedented national grassroots campaign to end homelessness, long-term unemployment and poverty. The Bringing America Home Now Campaign calls for dramatically expanding federal funding for affordable housing, living-wage jobs, and comprehensive social services.

The campaign will promote progressive initiatives that have become part of the mainstream conversation and would apply to all Americans, such as a single-payer universal health insurance system and a universal livable income indexed to the cost of housing.

It also directly targets homeless populations, calling for additional Section 8 vouchers for homeless youth and veterans and increasing homeless eligibility for food stamps. The goal of the campaign is to keep people in their homes, establishing a relief fund to provide grants for rent to landlords on behalf of tenants facing eviction and creating protections for tenants facing evictions due to foreclosure.

But implementing these measures will not be an easy lift.

Structural and institutional racism play a prominent role in why America has not tried to end homelessness. Homelessness in America is the most visible sign that we have prioritized giving tax breaks to the rich and have accepted gross income inequality between rich and poor. It is time to reimagine an America where homelessness does not exist and people who want to work can do so at a livable wage.

The United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world’s history. There is no reason we cannot provide decent and affordable housing or a living wage to all Americans.