The ‘System’ isn’t broken…

Posted: July 5, 2010 in Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Misconceptions, Money, Poverty, Stupidity

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."

  1. Rev. Cynthia says:

    Michael, I’d be curious to know how many folks make their livings by providing services to the homeless. I have a feeling that just like the “war machine” and the “welfare machine,” whose missions are actually not “peace” or “ending poverty” (although they may say that), Homeless Services Providers have a stake in keeping the status quo – these bodies are self-perpetuating because, if their stated missions are achieved they are all out of work.

    I do believe that many of us have our hearts in the right place and feel like we are doing what we can. My nonprofit is currently run w/ 100% volunteers, (including me, as the volunteer executive director), who create warm items of clothing, which are donated to shelters, and we also donate inspirational books. None of that will help anyone to become housed. We also don’t say that we are offering a “hand up.” We simply aspire to creating programs that fall under the category of “humanitarian outreach efforts.” I guess the questions are, “Are we really doing any good?” and “Is what we are doing enough or could we do more?”

    Thank you for this article & your insights, Michael – all things to consider…

  2. Michael,
    Again you are right on target.
    I love to read the words that many do not like to hear.
    Keep doing what you do. You continue to reach and touch many minds.

  3. To what degree do you believe that HSS should be focusing on the provision of housing as a solution to homelessness? I have met many individuals who have been provided with housing but, for one reason or another – usually lack of maturity and independent living knowledge and skills, the tenancy breaks down. Sadly for many young homeless people here it can take several years of prison spells, rough sleeping, bouncing between hostels and friends houses until they simply get ‘fed up’ with that particular lifestyle and resolve to change it – they feel ready to empower themselves and take charge of their future.

    How can HSS work with young people to educate and support them at an earlier age so these ‘problematic’ years can be avoided?

  4. Teri Carrillo says:

    I’m sure that it is disheartening to continue to see the vicious cycle of homelessness. But you have to recognize there are programs out there that work. I’ve been fortunate enough to see an amazing program that I believe has incredible results. San Diego Youth Services has and Independant Living Skills program! Kids that seriously desire to improve their life can definitely make some life altering changes. First one has to want it bad enough. Check it out!

    • michael says:


      I more than recognize that there are programs available that do indeed work. However, I was pointing out that the “traditional” HSS approach of a “meal and a bed,” does not – nor has it ever – worked at reducing homelessness in a community by any significant measure.

  5. Brad says:

    After spending the past decade in HSS provision, I can say the “broken leg” analogy leaves out an important step in the process. Before prescribing elements like food and shelter to ease the pain while your leg heals itself, our systems would also require agreements to abstain from the behaviors that led to the “broken leg”. Substance use, mental health conditions and past legal status all create conditions in which even the most basic “prescriptions” of food and shelter get denied. Some groups are starting to get it right and you can check out the movement at

    • michael says:

      Before prescribing elements like food and shelter to ease the pain while your leg heals itself, our systems would also require agreements to abstain from the behaviors that led to the “broken leg”.


      Actually, requiring the homeless to become rehabilitated before being provided with the necessities of life or being helped acquire housing, is the primary reason that the historical HSS approach is such a failure.

      Studies have already proven that a “Housing First” strategy works, and that it is far less expensive than the traditional HSS methodology.

      • Brad says:


        Agreed, we can’t end homelessness without understanding that the traditional systems that require rehabilitation before housing will not and does not work for the most chronic and vulnerable homeless. They need a customized and highly felexible permanent, supportive resource we have come to know as “housing first.” What we find is their behaviors rapidly become healthier when “treated” with housing and wrapped in a myriad of voluntary support services.

  6. Shane Anderson says:

    As someone who works with a food provider on a voluntary basis, I would most definately concur with your conclusions regarding the model we use. Provision of food and temporary accomodation does not empower people. Provision of permanent accomodation will not even necesarily empower people as I have seen with some families in Government provided accom.

    I think to truely empower a person we need to practice incarnational service. Where we do not offer a hand up because we are not above a person, instead we walk along side. This model sees far less immediate results however in the long term the only way to empower people is if we come to them as an equal. I think this can work in partnership with your more standard HCCs however the person who walks along side must divest themselves personally of the power to “help” a person up or “fix” their problems. They need to choose the seemingly weaker position of simply being there. This goes very much against the grain of human nature.

What's your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.