Although I’ve made this assertion before, I’m going to make it again: the only effective way of reducing homelessness in our communities is to help those folks become as self-sustaining as possible. This means providing the types of programs and services which will assist them in becoming housed.
Until we do that, the numbers of homeless will continue to increase. Period.
In the two and a half years that I’ve been authoring this blog, I’ve done quite a bit of reading and researching into homelessness. And, I’ve drawn certain conclusions.
Among those conclusions is the belief that homeless shelters generally do nothing to reduce the numbers of homeless in any community.
To be sure, there are some exceptions, but on the whole – when it comes to having a genuine impact at helping folks get off the streets, homeless shelters have been a dismal failure.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not engaging in "shelter bashing." Homeless shelters do indeed provide a needed function in our communities. All the same, it seems to me that we have misplaced our faith in believing that homeless shelters are a viable tool for reducing the numbers of folks who live on our cities streets.
They aren’t. And that is a truth which is borne out by fact.
If indeed homeless shelters were an effective means to help our nation’s homeless get back on their feet, why then have the numbers of homeless continued to rise?
It’s easy to blame the current economic situation in the nation for the increase in homelessness. However, long before the recession began, the number of folks who were becoming homeless was on the rise. And, even then, the nation’s shelter system had little or no impact at reducing those numbers.
Personally, I believe their lack of a "success rate" is due to the same antiquated and tired policies which so many shelters have in place – policies which have not "evolved" to reflect the needs of the current demographics of homelessness.
Let me give you an example.
Yesterday I read an article in the Herald Bulletin.
Its opening two paragraphs were:
"Despite a multitude of Madison County agencies designed to help the homeless, some prefer to stay on the streets.
A recent regional meeting involving local homeless agencies revealed that many homeless people simply don’t like to abide by the rules required at shelters."
I want to make this perfectly clear: I agree with – and support – the need to have some guidelines which anyone staying at a shelter should be asked to abide by.
Drunkenness; being under the influence of illegal drugs; unseemly or obnoxious behavior; the carrying of weapons; and so on: these types of things should most certainly be forbidden.
On the other hand, I also believe that there are certain instances when the rules and regulations are ridiculously over-enforced.
Let me give you another example.
On Saturday I read an article in The Macomb Daily, which told of Laura and Tyrone Sheppard and their three young children.
The family had been staying at the Macomb’s Answer to Temporary Shelter (MATTS) – which is administered by the Warren Salvation Army – since May of this year.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard would go out each day looking for employment. They never caused problems for anyone at the shelter. And, according to the article,
"… the Sheppard family was selected by shelter officials to be highlighted for a television news report about the shelter last month."
Not exactly a family one would expect would be ordered to leave the shelter for violating the MATTS "no drug" policy. Yet, that is exactly what occurred: they were made to leave because of drugs.
The drug in question?
A bottle of Tylenol.
Here’s what happened.
Early last week, Mrs. Sheppard took their youngest child to a clinic. Apparently the child wasn’t feeling well.
The doctor at the clinic told Mrs. Sheppard to buy some Tylenol for the child – which she did.
Although the shelter has a policy which requires all "drugs" to be given to shelter staff for safe-keeping, Mrs. Sheppard – who was aware of the policy – forgot to hand over the Tylenol.
A very simple – and human – mistake.
Should Mrs. Sheppard have turned the Tylenol in?
Homelessness in itself is a highly stressful experience. And, I imagine being homeless with children and living in a homeless shelter would be even more so.
It’s therefore understandable how Mrs. Sheppard’s primary concern would have been for her child’s health (otherwise she wouldn’t have taken the child to the clinic) – which in turn caused her to forget to turn in the Tylenol. Remember, they had been staying at the shelter only since May. So, it isn’t as though the Sheppard’s are seasoned veterans at being homeless.
That’s where human intervention should have come into play.
Perhaps the shelter staff could have given the Sheppard’s "written warning" rather than put the entire family back out on the streets.
I could understand strict enforcement if the "drug" would have been an illicit – or even a prescription drug. But such a robotic response over a bottle of Tylenol?
As I’ve already stated: I completely understand the shelter’s need to have a set of rules in place which their clientele need follow. However, it also seems to me that there are times when basic common sense needs to be used in the enforcement of those rules.
This particular instance should have been one of those times. It certainly would have been a more humanitarian approach.
With these types of extreme punitive measures, is it any wonder that more and more homeless are preferring to stay on the streets rather than go to a homeless shelter?
And, it is precisely because so many shelters have failed to rethink and upgrade their "one-size fits all" policies that they have been ineffectual at reducing homelessness in their communities.