Are homeless support services organizations doing their job?

Posted: February 15, 2011 in Compassion, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Morality

Are homeless support services organizations doing their job?

That’s an interesting question. One put forth by a college student who, not long ago, asked to interview me for a class project.

Some of my blogging colleagues and friends — as well as some of my regular readers — might be surprised with my answer. Nevertheless, I can honestly say, that in my opinion: Yes. Homeless Support Services organizations (HSS) are doing their job.

That answer, however, raises additional questions.  

For instance

If the HSS industry is indeed doing its job, why then have the numbers of homeless continued to increase, rather than decrease? Is it because — as so often asserted by HSS — that there is a lack of funding? Is it because the homeless aren’t aware of available services? Is it because they have no way to access those services? Or, is it — as some within the HSS industry claim (and many of the general public erroneously believe) — because the homeless do not want help and choose to be homeless?

(The answer to the last four questions is: "no." And, I will address those questions in future blog posts.)

The only way of understanding why homelessness has continued to increase, despite the best efforts of the HSS industry, it to examine what exactly it is that HSS offers – it’s basic dogma, as it were.

The HSS approach to homelessness has been one of offering the homeless "a meal and a bed." To be sure, there are some HSS organizations which offer "expanded" services — often times referred to as "case management." Nonetheless, the nucleus of what HSS offers the homeless is still focused primarily on the "meal and a bed" mindset.

This approach has remained virtually unchanged for over a century, and is based on an underlying belief that if the homeless are provided with food and a place to sleep, they should somehow be able to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps.

Unfortunately — as history has shown us time and time again — what may look good on paper doesn’t necessarily work as well under real life conditions. And, that makes me wonder if we are actually offering the homeless something that they cannot get without HSS.

The fact is that tonight, every homeless person in the U.S. will have a place to sleep. Some will be in a shelter bed. Others will sleep in vehicles, in tents, in vacant buildings, doorways, et cetera. But all of them will sleep somewhere.

As for food

I’ve been authoring this blog for nearly four years. Every week I read, on average, approximately 800 news articles about homelessness. Plus I read who-knows-how-many blogs about homelessness; reports, studies, and so forth. And, in all that time, I have yet to read anywhere that a homeless person in the U.S. has literally died of starvation.

That isn’t to say that it’s never happened. All the same, I haven’t read anything to that effect. Nor do I know anyone who has.

The reality is this: what the HSS industry offers is humanitarian aid. And, while that may be a good thing, history has also shown us that humanitarian aid is one of those things which looks good on paper but which doesn’t work as well in real life.

I can give you two prime examples . . .

In January 2010, when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, it left an estimated 1.5 million people homeless. Just slightly over one year later, despite the billions of dollars in international humanitarian aid, over one million Haitians are still homeless.

When Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in August 2005, it left tens of thousands people displaced and homeless. Half a decade later, despite the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency and humanitarian aid, thousands of New Orleans residents remain homeless.

I will be the first to give the HSS industry the highest passing grade possible for the services they offer. What they do can certainly be classified as both humanitarian and compassionate. However, we have to recognize that what they offer are services. But it’s far more important to recognize that "services" aren’t necessarily the same thing as "solutions."

Homelessness cannot be ended by offering services. It can only be solved by providing solutions that help the homeless rebuild the infrastructure of their lives and regain housing.

Are homeless support services organizations doing their job?

Insomuch as they are offering services to the homeless: Yes.

Are they offering solutions?


If we truly want to end homeless in our nation, we need a major recalibration in our approach. We need to focus more on providing solutions and less on offering services.

If you’re interested in knowing what I believe is a viable solution for ending homeless, feel free to read my post: Why use a ‘Housing First’ approach?

  1. poorlocavore says:

    Great analysis-they’re answering the question correctly, but it’s the wrong question. Is anyone asking homeless people what they need?

    I’m reading “Stones into Schools” out loud to my sons right now, and it’s almost too simple-the author actually went to the people he wanted to help, built relationships with them, asked them what they needed, then went about helping them make it happen.

    I’m also reading William Voldman’s piece in Harper’s this month about his sojourn with his homeless Sacramento neighbors. No answers yet, but an eye-opener nonetheless.

  2. eee says:

    I have somewhat different observations.

    Witnessed many unsheltered homeless persons in San Francisco, Atlanta, NY, among others. Few looked healthy and uppon interacting with them, many were excluded from shelters, due to overcrowding, curfews, fear; their clothes were mostly shabby, and inadequate for the weather, and they looked malnourished.

    So I don’t think the services are doing that great of a job – they get a D to C- in my book.

    I’ve personally had to give out hot cocoa, snacks, and hand/body warmers to those who had to spend the nights outside of shelters that would not let them in. Most of these people had so many missing teeth that when they smile you see nothing but gums. They were filthy, malnourished/under normal weight, and truly destitute/ not counting a sense of humor.

    There are so many unsheltered homeless- and to me that’s unjustifiable.

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