What You Can Do Over The Holidays To Help End The Homeless Epidemic

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With Thanksgiving and the holidays right around the corner, many of us are looking forward to quality time spent with family and friends, delicious food and exchanging gifts as we celebrate and show our love for each other.

Christmas lists are being written and we’re checking them twice, hoping for the latest in electronics, jewelry and the hot items of the season.

Consumers rush out on Black Friday (and even earlier) to load their shopping carts and take advantage of the best deals for gifts that will be placed under their trees.

Unfortunately, Christmas has become more about exchanging gifts rather than celebrating the true meaning of the day.

We have so much to be thankful for but we don't even realize it.

Upwards of a million Americans (depending on which survey you refer to) are simply worried about where they will find their next meal and lay their heads tonight.

From this perspective, it seems much less important see who has received the latest iPhone.

Where is our compassion, and where are our priorities?

The stigma often associated with homelessness assumes that the person is at fault for his or her predicament.

This is unfair and misplaced.

Many people incorrectly assume it cannot happen to them, but homelessness happens to regular people every day, who unexpectedly fall into circumstances beyond their control.

There have been many reports of financially sound families who've experienced this downward spiral when one of their loved ones got a medical condition that drained them both emotionally and financially.

The recession (which encompassed the US financial crisis of 2007 to 2008, as well as the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007 to 2009) had quite an impact on the US economy.

Many Americans lost their jobs, and paired with looming mortgage payments, also lost their homes.

Some simply do not have the support system from family or friends, and when encountering such a loss, they are left without options.

Additionally, failure to provide affordable housing for the poor impacts our communities and families already struggling to get by.

Studies show that workers earning a minimum-wage across the US must work 70 to 120 hours per week to be able to afford rent (hours vary by geographic location).

Given these facts, how are Americans expected to not only survive, but thrive?

While homelessness can occur because of financial reasons, there are a variety of situations that can cause this plight.

Drug and alcohol addiction often runs rampant in the streets.

Those plagued by chemical dependence have difficulty breaking the cycle with little to no access to appropriate care, creating a vicious cycle that can lead to crime, violence and death.

Victims of domestic violence (both adults and children) often flee their homes for safety and to escape their attacker(s); young teens who are gay or transgender have increasingly found themselves homeless after parents or guardians refuse to accept their lifestyles.

Lack of appropriate mental healthcare and jobs for veterans is a major cause of debate in the current presidential race and a travesty in our world.

It’s a shame to think the people who have risked their lives for our country can so easily be dismissed by our government and reduced to sleeping on the street.

We must do more; the US government, along with all Americans, need to shine a light on this epidemic that is affecting so many of our citizens.

Below are some sobering statistics, taken from the website for the National Coalition for the Homeless:

Based on Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time Survey, January 2013:

•HUD found 610,042 individuals to be homeless on a single night in January 2013. Most homeless people (85 percent) are individuals while 15 percent of homeless people are in family households. •Thirty-three percent of all homeless people were youths under the age of 24. •Around 57,849 veterans, overwhelmingly 92 percent male, were homeless on a single night in January 2013. Sixty percent were residing in shelters or transitional housing programs, while 40 percent were without shelter. •Forty-eight percent of homeless individuals (without families) were found to be living without shelter. •Families experiencing homelessness made up 50 percent of those who were sheltered. •Five states, California (22 percent), New York (13 percent), Florida (8 percent), Texas (5 percent) and Massachusetts (3 percent), accounted for more than half of the homeless population in the United States in 2013.

From 2013 to 2014, overall homelessness decreased by 2.3 percent and homelessness decreased among every major subpopulation: unsheltered people (10 percent), families (2.7 percent), chronically homeless individuals (2.5 percent) and veterans (10.5 percent).

While this decrease is good news, it is not enough.

Why is this acceptable and when did we become so desensitized to other humans in need?

So, how can you help?

Each helping hand makes a difference.

Reach out to those in your community and try to organize a food and clothing drive; many food banks need volunteers.

In addition to helping hands, we need voices. Reach out to your local legislators and urge them to take action to end homelessness.

You can look up your state’s elected official here.

We need to urge them to focus on better healthcare, shelters and affordable housing available to help alleviate homelessness.

Additionally, we must have substance abuse programs in place to help assist those in overcoming addiction, and mental health counseling available to all in need.

Please check out some of these great organizations that help the homeless:

National Coalition for the Homeless: National Alliance to End Homelessness: Stand Up For Kids:

This holiday season, as you are celebrating with your loved ones, please take a moment to remember those less fortunate.

If every person helps -- whether it's by volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen, donating gently used clothing or using your voice -- we can make a difference.