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Homelessness: The Next Climate Emergency?

Homelessness: The Next Climate Emergency?

A blog by Tzippy Horowitz, Maryland Campaign Coordinator

I used to think I’d always stay housed. I’m sure many of you reading this feel that way right now. But as the world changes faster and faster, becoming less hospitable, this will increasingly become an issue not just in your backyard, but for you or someone you care about. Addressing the problems with housing through an environmental justice lens, we can address climate disasters while still finding solutions that treat people as people, meeting them where they are and leaving a better world for generations to come.

Many do not think of homelessness as an issue related to climate. For the longest time, I didn’t think either was something that would personally affect me, but it’s become increasingly evident that neglecting the greater good of our community as a whole with policies that ignore the rising costs of living and rising sea levels, is a combination heading towards deadly consequences that almost no one is safe from. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), over 653,100 people experienced homelessness on any single night in 2023; an increase of 12% from 2022. Meanwhile, over the last four years, rent has increased by 21.78% nationally. As extreme weather conditions worsen, people losing their homes from climate disasters will be searching for new housing when it is more expensive and harder to find than ever. Data from the National Library of Medicine details that approximately 26% of people have experienced self-defined homelessness at some point in their life. So this dire problem affects a quarter of the population, and will only get worse if we do not change course soon.

According to a Groundswell report, there could be up to 216 million internal migrants globally by the year 2050. That means that within less than a generation from now, having access to stable and safe housing will be much less common than today. If our infrastructure is already struggling to address homelessness in an efficient and safe way, how can we expect to be able to handle the massive surge of homelessness that will be caused as climate disasters such as rising sea levels and increasingly powerful extreme weather create hundreds of thousands of refugees right here at home? 

Addressing homelessness in the United States is not only relevant to climate action – it is an issue of environmental justice and gender equity, and one relevant to my personal story. At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, I found myself between jobs in Fayetteville, West Virginia, without a lease, having just come out of the closet as a woman of trans experience. Finding work or housing in an unfamiliar state wasn’t easy when everyone is afraid to be physically near one another. Suddenly, housing wasn’t someone else’s problem. 

It wasn’t one thing that led me to that situation, but a combination of factors that caused instability in my life. My experience is not singular, especially for queer people like me. In Maryland where I live, 29% of trans people are unhoused. According to a recent survey, last year 23% of respondents experienced some form of housing discrimination, such as being evicted from or denied access to a home or apartment due to transphobia. These conditions are even worse for trans people of color, who are unhoused at higher rates than their counterparts, with 29% of respondents of color reporting living in poverty

Housing is a complicated issue. Even when housing is located, for many it is inadequate and unsafe, with no recourse they can afford; thus perpetuating the cycle of instability and homelessness due to lack of safe shelter, and leading to worse outcomes such as higher rates of incarceration. According to the Alliance to End Homelessness, individuals who are homeless are more likely to interact with law enforcement and end up in jail because “the existence of many low-level offenses make it nearly impossible to live outdoors without being ticketed or arrested – even for “violations” such as sitting on the sidewalk.” Homelessness is not and should never be a punishable offense.

Addressing the reality climate change presents is not a simple task either. Yet as hotter and hotter temperatures continue to break records each year, and as we suffer more and more deaths from homelessness the intersection between these two systemic problems will prove incredibly deadly if left unaddressed. The risks of heart attacks, heat strokes, dehydration, frostbite, and other exposure-related health risks caused by extreme temperatures will increase, as will the threat of living through a tornado, hurricane, or blizzard without a safe place to go. 

So when someone tells you there’s just no way to lower out-of-control rents or make owning a home possible; or when a politician tells you they would love more low and middle-income housing, just not here, remind them there’s nowhere else for us to go, and problems can’t be solved by letting someone else deal with them. Remind them that everyone deserves a home. 

Trans folx here in Maryland are taking the lead on this issue, and if you are motivated to help today, please join in our communal responsibility for making housing accessible by chipping in as much as you are able to Baltimore Safe Haven; a trans-led housing organization currently hosting a capital campaign to provide more housing for Baltimore’s queer community. If you want to help work towards systemic fixes for this and other fights for trans rights, please donate to the important work of the Trans Rights Advocacy Coalition;  another group by and for trans folx fighting to ensure that all trans Marylanders can live safe, affirming lives.