Homelessness is at a record high in America. Volunteerism is declining.

Perspective by Petula DvorakColumnist December 21, 2023 at 12:16 p.m. EST Washington Post

A sharp rise in the number of people unhoused for the first time drove the uptick. Meanwhile, fewer Americans are stepping up to help.

He traced the letters of his name with his finger in the night air: “I -B-A-N-E-Z.”

Rafael Ibanez, 54, has been repeating his name, spelling it out, for government bureaucrats for at least two months, since the backpack containing all his identification papers was stolen.F

He’s on his makeshift front porch, a scavenged folding chair next to his shelter, garbage bags hung on crisscrossing ropes. Across the street, little girls in glittery blue dresses were giddy at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House for opening night of the Disney musical “Frozen.”

One city, two worlds in the nation’s capital.

Ibanez is part of one of the fastest-growing populations in America – the homeless.

Last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released its Annual Homeless Assessment Report showing that 12 percent more people were experiencing homelessness this year compared to last. And the number — about 650,000 — is the highest ever since they’ve been keeping count.

“Homelessness is solvable and should not exist in the United States,” said HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge.

Indeed. And yet here we are, a calamity that is entirely man-made.

Ibanez worked as a landscaper and construction worker in Arizona for decades,he said, then work dried up and he followed a family member north, where he hoped jobs would be easier and more abundant.

His backpack and identity papers were stolen when he was in Manhattan. So he came to D.C., as many do, in the belief that proximity to the federal government will ensure they’ll get assistance and benefits quicker.

A decent number of the folks in D.C.’s tent villages are like him. Veterans who want their benefits, immigrants who want to become citizens and folks whose Social Security benefits were janked up believe their answers lie in the nation’s capital.

The numbers in D.C. are also rising, with an 11.6 percent increase this year over last, according to the D.C. government. There are about 5,000 people without a home in the nation’s capital.

This was the case with one unforgettable woman I met in 2016, Wanda Witter.

After battling Social Security for years, hauling three suitcases stuffed with paperwork to prove her case, the then 80-year-old woman who was homeless until the week we met got one of the biggest I-told-you-so’s that a person can hope for.

‘I wasn’t crazy’: A homeless woman’s long war to prove the feds owed her big bucks

The government admitted the mistake and deposited $99,999.00 in her Sun Trust bank account. She got a cute apartment.

Ibanez has been living outside the Kennedy Center for two months now. He said it’s the first time he’s lived rough,and it’s getting colder. He believes that if he could just get someone in the federal government to believe who he is, he can come inside, too. But the visits to offices haven’t helped.

There are facts of his story I’m missing and I’m sure many are hard.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

But there he was this week, among a small tent city of the forgotten, trying to stay warm, eat and get someone to acknowledge his existence so he can file for food stamps and housing benefits.

This is getting more difficult in America – and notably in D.C. – because the nonprofits that step in to help people, which have long been underfunded and understaffed, are running up against a deepening challenge: a nationwide decline in volunteers.

The number of Americans who raised their hands to volunteer in the United States dropped about 7 percentage points between September 2020 and September 2021, to the lowest it’s been since do-gooders work has been tracked in the early 2000s, according to a January report released by the Census Bureau and AmeriCorps, the federal agency for national service and volunteerism.

“There have always been organizations that have struggled to find volunteers, but it’s now it’s a huge problem,” Nathan Dietz, research director at the Do Good Institute in the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, who co-wrote a study released last month exploring factors influencing volunteering and charitable giving in the United States, told my colleague Joe Heim.

Plus, these remaining folks who help the homeless are being flooded because of this sad fact in the yearly count — the steep increase in homeless Americans is largely made up of folks who are unhoused for the first time in their lives.

It’s a domino effect — it’s hard to buy a house, so the renter market is flooded and rents are growing.

“Millions of households are now priced out of homeownership, grappling with housing cost burdens, or lacking shelter altogether, including a disproportionate share of people of color,” according to a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

These aren’t just the folks battling mental illness or addictions, as former president and current candidate Donald Trump would like you to believe as he tromps through America with dictatorial declarations of mass roundups and arrests of the homeless and immigrants.

Between fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the number of people who became newly homeless increased by 25 percent, according to HUD data.

“This rise in first-time homelessness is likely attributable to a combination of factors, including but not limited to, the recent changes in the rental housing market and the winding down of pandemic protections and programs focused on preventing evictions and housing loss,” the HUD announcement said.

These are folks thrown to the curb because the rent is simply too darn high.

The eviction protections that helped renters during the pandemic are gone. And the people already on the edge before covid paralyzed the nation are falling off, according to the Harvard report.

Ibanez wishes he could pay rent again.

For now, he gets takeout boxes that diners leaving Georgetown restaurants give him. Some of the folks who rack their rental bikes next to his encampment give him their coats or blankets. He’s seeing more of this now, close to the holidays.

“People are good to me,” he said. “They try.”

Not hard enough.