Sincerity alone doesn’t solve homelessness

Posted: July 16, 2010 in Goals, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Hopes, Housing, Misconceptions

I knew it was going to happen.

Even as I was writing my post, The ‘System’ isn’t broken…, I knew it would cause some folks associated with the Homeless Support Services (HSS) industry to become upset with me. That displeasure manifested itself in the numerous e-mails I received within days after the post was published to the blog.  

In that post, I wrote:

"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."

As a defense, those who e-mailed me cited a list of reasons for their lack of success.

The most common excuse… er… reason cited for their lack of success was a lack of funding. The second was a lack of personnel. And four of the e-mailers went so far as to sickeningly blame their lack of success on the homeless themselves.

Not surprisingly, none of the e-mailers’ were willing to even concede the possibility that their lack of success might perhaps have something to do with HSS methodology.

I sent each one the same reply:

"Thank you for your e-mail.

While I applaud your sincerity, and that of your organization, there is only one true measure of success regarding this social issue: the reduction of homelessness.

As such, I must ask: By what percentage has homelessness been reduced in your community through the efforts of your organization? In other words, are there less homeless in your community; or are their more despite all of your good works?"

I also pointed out that if they made claims of having reduced homelessness in their respective communities, I would do my best to verify the validity of their claims.

As of yet I have not received any return responses. Nor do I expect any.

The reality is that all of the sincerity in the world will not reduce the numbers of homeless if the types of services being offered do not directly lead to helping the homeless become re-housed and attain some level of self-sustainability. And, this is where the traditional HSS method falls short because their primary focus has historically been one of providing only meals and temporary shelter.

But, the blame for this short-coming cannot be place solely on the shoulder of HSS organizations alone. Society shares in that blame because we have continued to fund HSS without requiring any true accountability. We have not sought a return on our investment.

We have been content to allow government to fund these agencies and we have given them our private donations. But we have never really pushed them to implement policies which actually reduce homelessness in our communities. Instead, we have been satisfied with reducing the visibility of homelessness on our city streets.

Then, as the numbers of homeless grows and their visibility increases, we lash out at our city councils, demanding that something be done about "those people."

Local governments, in turn, respond to our complaints by enacting ordinances which prohibit or severely curtail the homeless from performing life-sustaining activities in public places, or by increasing the number of available shelter beds. But this also, does nothing more than reduce the visibility of homelessness until such a time when the numbers increase and there are more homeless then shelter beds – and subsequently the homeless become visible again.

And the vicious cycle continues.

Not only is this financially wasteful, it is inhumane treatment of those members of our communities who are the most vulnerable.

Feeding the homeless and offering them temporary shelter may be a good thing. And it shows that our hearts in are in the right place.

But offering the homeless a "meal and a bed" is diametrically different than providing them with services which actually empower them to become re-housed – and subsequently end their homelessness.

Until such a time that we, as a society, recognize that hiding the homeless is not the same as helping the homeless, homelessness will continue to increase – despite our sincerity.

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Comments
  1. Rev. Cynthia says:

    Michael, in the past, I’ve heard you say that “the solution to homelessness is housing.”

    Apparently, some communities have “Housing First” programs. As I understand it, people who are housed, but on the verge of homelessness, are saved from losing their housing, by having their rent paid and social workers assist them to solve whatever the issue is that is putting them at risk of landing on the street. And folks, who have hit the streets are given “transitional housing” (they are actually being put into apartments, not shelters) and support services to get them permanently housed. Personally, I have not lived anywhere that I’ve actually seen these systems in practice, but I have a video, sponsored by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, which depicts the programs.

    Recently, while on the bus here in SLO, I spoke with a couple of people, who disclosed that they were homeless, but that they have funds in the form of Social Security retirement benefits, but they cannot afford housing. This was exactly my own personal situation the last time I was homeless. So, all of the people in that category could be housed, if enough subsidized housing were available.

    Clearly, we’re talking about funding affordable housing and programs for people with mental health issues or addictions (it is my understanding that in SLO there is no free treatment center). There is a very small percentage of people, who will not allow themselves to be housed.

    As for addiction, someone recently said something to me that for some reason sounded quite profound in a “duh” sort of way and that was, “Lots of people have alcohol and drug addictions, who are also still housed. The difference is that they have money.”

    Many people are currently without housing, because they’ve lost their jobs. I have come across several men recently, who used to work in the construction trades (carpentry, painting, etc.), who are out of work and now they are homeless. That can only be solved with more jobs becoming available.

    Personally, I think we could stop funding war (for the benefit of those, who are making money from the sale of arms, etc.) and easily solve this homeless issue.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Michael. I greatly admire your courage in speaking the truth.

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