Lately, it seems not a day goes by when I don’t read about a community somewhere which has already developed – or is in the process of developing – a "10-year plan to end homelessness." These 10-plans are part of the America’s Road Home project – a nationwide effort to remedy homelessness.
Currently, there have been some 450 Mayors and County officials nationally who have agreed to abide by its Statement of Principles and Actions.
Personally, I’m a bit skeptical about these plans actually being able to completely end homelessness in the given ten years. The reason for my skepticism is that these plans specifically target the "chronically homeless" – who, incidentally, represent only about 10 to 15 percent of the overall numbers of homeless. So, even if these plans did manage to help every last chronically homeless person get off the streets, the overall majority of homeless persons would still be homeless.
However, in those cities which have already implemented these plans, the results have been positive. Folks are being moved off of the streets and into permanent housing. The success rate is close to 85 percent – which is infinitely better than what has been achieved by the traditional homeless shelter systems. More importantly: the results are reproducible.
The reason these 10-year plans have such a high success rate is that they use a "housing first" approach as a remedy to homelessness. Once a person has stabilized housing, they have a better chance for rebuilding their lives. In addition, permanent housing means that they are no longer homeless – and subsequently no longer a financial burden to the community.
In my opinion however, there are two "shortcomings" with these 10-year plans.
First – as I’ve already mentioned – they currently target assistance for the chronically homeless only. This precludes 85 to 90 percent of the nation’s homeless population from being able to benefit from these programs. Considering that they’ve been shown effective at helping folks get off the streets, expanding these programs to help non-chronically homeless also would create a greater potential to significantly reduce homelessness nationwide.
The second "shortcoming" is actually more of a social obstacle which has to do with attitudes of the local communities toward the homeless.
An article I read on KnoxNews.com had this headline: Residents demand transparency, promise of safety in homeless projects.
The article’s theme was predictable: that community’s 10-year plan called for the building permanent and affordable housing units to assist the homeless. But folks are adamantly opposed to having it built in their neighborhood. They don’t want the homeless in their area. Their opinion: build it somewhere else. Consequently the proposed project has been put on hold.
I’m not sure how many news articles about the various 10-year plans nationwide I’ve read. But it has certainly been more than just a few. And invariably, the articles point out that folks are not willing to have housing for the homeless built in their neighborhoods.
But why not?
I believe that folks are opposed to these housing projects because they are "informationally challenged." (Yes, I know that "informationally" isn’t actually a word, but bear with me)
For the most part, when these projects are proposed, folks think of them as "homeless shelters" rather than genuine housing. This conjures up images of having large numbers of homeless people milling around the neighborhood – and with them, the old stereotypes, misconceptions and stigmas associated with homelessness. As a result, the thought of having a homeless shelter in their "backyard" isn’t exactly an appealing idea to most people.
Unfortunately, local governments are partially to blame for the perpetuation of those stereotypes.
For decades, their approach to homelessness has been to adopt and enact laws and ordinances which have penalized and criminalized the homeless for performing life sustaining activities in public. This has served to create the impression, in minds of the many of the general public, that the homeless are societal undesirables.
Now that government is actually seeking to remedy homelessness however, their past methods of "dealing" with the issue is coming back to haunt them.
One thing I’ve noticed which is absent from these 10-year plans is a provision for the "re-education" of the general public with regards to homelessness. And, without a comprehensive campaign to raise public awareness about what these plans are; how they work; and the benefits to the community, local governments will continue to face strong opposition to the building of the housing needed.
That so many cities have opted to implement a "housing first" approach for remedying homelessness in their communities is a good thing. That this approach has shown the potential for achieving the desired results is a good thing. That the results are reproducible is also a good thing.
Now, if local governments would engage their citizenry in the necessary dialogue to dispel the stereotypes; and if they would expand the programs to encompass more than just the chronically homeless – that would be a great thing.