During the past few months, I’ve been visiting websites belonging to Homeless Support Services (HSS) groups and organizations (e.g. – homeless shelters, rescue missions, soup kitchens, etc.) from all around the country.
I don’t know how many HSS websites I’ve visited all told, but it’s been quite a large number.
Most of them have some form of "Mission Statement" that outlines their belief that the services they offer are providing a viable means for the homeless to become re-housed.
Although each groups’ mission statement had its own "unique" wording, I noticed that all of them were a variation on a theme: "Offering a hand up, not a hold out."
While their ideology may sound noble and humanitarian, I have to ask myself: Are these groups really offering a hand up?
One of the things I discovered while visiting those sites, is that organized HSS has been in the U.S. for well over 100 years. That, in itself, causes me to ask: If, indeed, these groups are offering "a hand up," why then, have the number of folks experiencing homeless continued to rise – rather than decrease – despite the best claims of the HSS industry?
Even before I began authoring this blog, a little over three years ago, I’d already held the opinion that HSS does virtually nothing to actually help folks escape homelessness – at least nothing of any substantive manner. In fact, I had come to believe that somewhere along the line, something had gone seriously amiss with the way HSS groups operated and that the "system" had to first be fixed before these types of organizations could be used as effective tool for reducing homelessness.
Since then, I’ve come to a different (and disturbing) realization: The system isn’t broken. It’s never worked!
That may seem like a harsh thing to say. But, there are reasons why I’ve come to that conclusion.
Throughout its long history, HSS has primarily provided two things: food and temporary shelter. And, when it comes to helping get folks off the streets, food and shelter alone simply don’t work – regardless of the "good intentions" of the folks who operate HSS facilities.
To be sure, there are some HSS groups which offer "case management" and/or referrals to other homeless services. But those, also, don’t have a positive track record at reducing homelessness by any appreciable percentage.
But why not?
Quite simply, because the types of services offered by HSS treat the symptoms of homelessness only and do nothing to address the cause.
Let me offer this analogy as an explanation:
Let’s say that you’d broken your leg. You would go to the hospital to get medical attention, right?
But what if, upon arrival (and all of the ensuing paperwork), the doctor didn’t bother to set the bone and place your leg in a cast; but instead, took one look at your leg and said: "Yep. You’ve got a broken leg, alright. Here’s a bottle of aspirin. Go home; take two every four hours for the pain; stay off your leg for the next 6 to 8 weeks; and before you know it, you should be good as new. Good luck."?
I don’t know anyone who would consider that to be adequate medical treatment. You certainly wouldn’t be better off than your were before you arrived at the hospital, would you?
And why not?
Because the doctor would have dealt with the symptoms only – and not the actual injury.
Similarly, this has been the historic approach to homelessness by the HSS industry: feed and temporarily shelter the homeless and expect them to "boot strap" themselves back into housing – which is, in all reality, nothing more than a "take-two-aspirins-and-call-me-in-the-morning" mindset.
Unfortunately, that methodology doesn’t work (although, you’d be hard pressed to find someone in HSS who would be willing to admit to that).
We have to face the facts: the traditional HSS approach doesn’t work.
It didn’t work in the past. It most certainly is not working in the present. And it is highly improbable that it will work in the future.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I think that feeding and temporarily sheltering the homeless is a good thing. And I admire the sincerity and dedication of folks who are part of the HSS industry. I certainly do not question their good intentions.
However, unless HSS groups undergo a drastic metamorphosis and begin focusing on actually empowering the homeless to acquire housing and achieve some measure of self-sustainability, I question the prudence of continuing to finance an industry that has, thus far, proven itself to be unsuccessful at reducing homelessness.
To quote Albert Einstein:
"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."