Symptoms, Obstacles and Roadblocks

Posted: February 26, 2009 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Misconceptions

Each day I read through numerous news articles about homelessness from all around the nation. As I do, I can’t help but wonder what are the biggest obstacles we must overcome in order to effectively remedy the issue.

Lack of funding is one which, I’m guessing, most homeless support services organizations would point to. Obviously, if there’s not enough money to finance outreach programs, then there is a limit to what types of services can be offered. However, lack of funding is only a symptom of a deeper problem.  

Yesterday, I came across four articles which had a common theme: "It’s fine to help the homeless, providing it’s not in my neighborhood."

Yet, the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mindset is also only a symptom – and not the obstacle itself.

There are folks who will point at the homeless and accuse them of being the obstacle.

Admittedly, there are those who have chosen homelessness as their preferred lifestyle. There are also those homeless who have ceased trying to get back into the mainstream of society. But, again – these are only symptoms, not obstacles.

The first article, Homeless Shelter Ready To Expand, Neighbors Say "Not So Fast," was about the Charis House in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which just this past winter turned away 500 women and children because they didn’t have room to accommodate them.

Over the last five years, the organization has been searching a tract of land on which to build a larger shelter for the area’s homeless women and children. Now, that they have the land, they are ready to build. However, quite a number of folks are less than enthusiastic about having the shelter built in their neighborhood.

Even one of the city’s council members, Tom Didier, is opposed to having the shelter being built in on the proposed site.

The article went on to say,

Third district city council member, Tom Didier’s, district is across the street from the controversial land. He says he isn’t against helping the homeless but doesn’t like the proposed Well’s street location.

"This particular project is something that could go somewhere else," said Didier. "They own the property so fro them they actually could make out in the long run if some developer would want to come along and purchase that property."

Didier called Mayor Henry today and suggested the city purchase the property and help Charis House officials find other land.

The other three articles: Residents fight plan to house homeless in vacant hotel, from WFAA-TV 8 in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX; Proposal to house homeless stirs controversy, from Madison, Wisconsin; and St. Louis loft district’s new neighbors cause concern, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; weren’t actually about homeless shelters. Rather, they were about permanent housing for the homeless.

I can somewhat understand a community’s reluctance to have a homeless shelter built in their neighborhoods. After all, shelters provide services to the homeless en masse – and generally do little more than offer a meal and a bed. That’s a far cry from assisting a person transition back into the community.

Permanent housing, on the other hand, is something completely different. It actually takes folks off the streets and begins the process of re-integrating them back into society.

Unfortunately, many folks view permanent, low-income housing units for the homeless and homeless shelters as being one in the same thing.

But they’re not.

One is supportive; the other is remedial.

There is another common thread to articles I’ve read about building housing for the homeless.

When construction of these projects first starts, no one complains. Most of the time, they see it as some type of neighborhood improvement program and they’re all for it – until the word "homeless" comes to the forefront. That’s when the bellyaching and outrage begins spewing forth like venom.

Call me a simpleton. But, I’m willing to bet, if folks didn’t know that those units were going to be occupied by individuals who had been homeless, no one would give a care. In fact, they might even find that some of their "new neighbors" were actually pretty decent people; folks like themselves who were just trying to have a better life.

All of which brings me right back to the beginning of this post: what are the biggest obstacles we must overcome in order to effectively remedy homelessness?

To me the answer is clear.

We have to set aside our arrogance. We have to stop believing the stereotypes; the misconceptions. We have to stop saying we want to remedy homelessness in our communities, yet persist in finding reasons not to help them.

We can grumble and complain that the homeless need to buck up, fly straight and become productive members of the community all we want. But, when we continue to find excuses for segregating them from the rest of society, we set in place barriers which neither they nor us can get past.

When it comes to ending homelessness, it may well be that our attitudes toward them is the biggest roadblock.

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