I believe that one of the primary reasons that there is little being done to effectively reduce the numbers of homeless in our communities is that folks simply don’t know what it is they can do to help.
Most people probably know about the homeless shelters and other such organizations within their community and perhaps assume that these types of agencies are the only workable solutions to homelessness. As a result, they may make donations of one kind or another to these agencies, or even give a homeless person a few dollars directly, and then feel that there is nothing more that they can do.
There are also folks who do not make donations of any kind toward helping the homeless in their communities. This is because they erroneously believe that since these agencies are receiving some form of government funding there is simply no need on their part to do anything more.
The reality it this: homeless support services agencies are not the panacea – the great cure all – to ending homelessness in our communities. Anyone who actually believes that they are is unaware of the complexities involved in trying to end homelessness. Homelessness is not something that can be "cured" simply by the funding of homeless shelters. That’s the reality.
It’s a good start, but it’s only one step in a long process. It takes more than just a meal and a bed – which is primarily the types of services that homeless shelters provide to the homeless. It’s just not enough. Nor can it ever be enough.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has put together a fact sheet, titled How YOU Can Help End Homelessness, which gives a relatively good outline of what the average everyday person can do to help have an impact of reducing the number of homeless in their community.
One paragraph of the fact sheet really caught my attention. That paragraph speaks about the private citizen becoming involved in advocacy, and says,
"Advocacy is critical to creating the systemic changes needed to end homelessness. Advocacy means working with people experiencing homelessness to bring about positive changes in policies and programs on the local, state, and federal levels. It means working with various sectors of the community (e.g. city/county officials, members of Congress, direct service providers, and the business community) to develop workable strategies for responding to homelessness. It also means changing your language and behaviors in small ways that may contribute to larger changes in the way people experiencing homelessness are seen and treated in our society."
I’m particularly intrigued by the second and last sentences of that paragraph.
The second sentence mentions "…working with people experiencing homelessness" as a way of helping to bring about changes. I personally would add to that sentence to include working with folks who have been homeless, but who have been able to transition back into the community.
The reason it’s important to include those who are presently homeless and those who have been homeless – especially when it comes to trying find genuine solutions for ending homelessness – is because, who better than someone who is currently experiencing it, or experienced it has a better insight into the types of services which can make a difference?
While it may be possible for someone who has never been homeless to extrapolate, and then perhaps surmise at what types of services the homeless need, a person who has experienced homeless can speak from personal and first hand knowledge of what is required to help the homeless.
Let me put it this way: if you wanted to learn how to earn a million dollars, you would seek the advice of a person who has earned a million dollars. Why? Because they know what they’re talking about. It would be foolish to seek the advice of someone who is making minimum wage, because if they knew how to earn a million dollars, then why are they only earning minimum wage, right?
Yet, there are very few homeless support services organizations who will seek out those who know the "ins and outs" of homelessness first hand. As a result the types of services offered are seldom effective at reducing the numbers of homeless in a community.
In my opinion any homeless support service agency that is not actively seeking input from someone who has "been there and done that" is doing a disservice, not only to the homeless they seek to help, but to the rest of the community as well.
Which brings us to the last sentence in the paragraph: "…changing your language and behaviors in small ways that may contribute to larger changes in the way people experiencing homelessness are seen and treated in our society?"
How we view the homeless in our communities will determine how we treat them.
If we think of the homeless as being "beneath" us or as though they are second class citizens, then this, unfortunately, will be the manner in which we treat them.
If, on the other hand, we learn to acknowledge them as people who are entitled to be treated with human dignity, then we have a greater potential for effecting those changes required to provide the types of assistance which can help them become a part of the community again. And, that should be our goal.
Our remedy for ending homelessness in our communities should be to offer the homeless a hand up and not a hand out. Our goal should be to help the homeless and not simply hide them.
As I stated a bit earlier: homeless support services organizations are not the cure all for homelessness. At best, they are a first step only. It’s up to the rest of us to take the second and third steps and become involved.
And, why should we become involved?
Because it’s our community.
Anything that we can do to help improve the quality of life for any member of our community benefits each and every one of us in the long run.