In a yearlong special report, NPR examines the crucial role of housing -- or lack of it -- in the lives of Americans with special needs.
"Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in."
At the heart of the American dream lies the idea of home. The nation has always been a refuge for those seeking a fair chance to build a life. The Statue of Liberty promises not only freedom but welcome -- to a harbor, a shelter, a place where all are taken in.
To a remarkable extent, the dream has been realized. In 2001, 68 percent of Americans owned a home of their own (an all-time high), and many more rented comfortable places to live. But at the same time, the dream of home has proven illusory for millions of Americans with special needs or challenging circumstances.
Through the 1990s, the richest nation in the history of the earth managed to combine growing prosperity with growing homelessness. As many as 3.5 million people are homeless in the United States during the course of a year, the Urban Institute estimates. Others scrape by in places that barely qualify as shelter: A Department of Housing and Urban Development study found 5.4 million U.S. families living in severely substandard housing, paying more than half their incomes for rent -- or both.
The housing crisis cuts across boundaries of race and class. But certain groups are disproportionately represented, including people with physical disabilities, mental retardation, mental illness or addiction problems, former foster-care children, ex-offenders, and abused women and children. For many of these Americans, finding secure housing is the first and most pressing of needs.
Thus was born Housing First. In a yearlong reporting project on-air and online, National Public Radio will explore the quest of people with special needs to find adequate places to live.
It's a struggle in which all Americans have a stake. The bill for homelessness and poor housing comes due in rising health-care and criminal-justice costs, as well as in the lost potential that leaves a nation poorer in countless ways. "The bottom rungs of the housing ladder are broken and we need to fix them," says Philip Mangano of the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "It makes our whole society stronger."