Does ending homelessness require more funding?

Posted: February 28, 2011 in Compassion, Goals, Government, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Misconceptions, Money, Poverty

In my post, Are homeless support services doing their job?, I raised a number of questions regarding the increase in homelessness despite the best efforts of the homeless support services (HSS) industry. One of those questions dealt with funding. In essence I asked if homelessness has risen because there is a lack of adequate funding.

There are some who maintain that if the HSS industry were given more funding there would be less homeless. And at first glance that may seem to be a reasonable conclusion to make. But is it?  

It would certainly be nice if suddenly there were ample financial resources to end homelessness in the U.S. all at once. But I’m too much of a realist to expect that somehow, someway there will magically appear unlimited funding for that to happen.

To be sure, the Obama Administration has proposed an increase in funding for homeless services for fiscal year 2012 – and a rather sizable increase at that.

According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’ website,

"The President’s Budget includes $4.8 billion for targeted homeless assistance funding, a 23.4% increase over the previously enacted Fiscal Year 2010 Budget and a 13.3% increase over the President’s Fiscal Year 2011 Budget proposal."

Unfortunately, what President Obama is asking for and what Congress will approve are two different things.

Still, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Congress approves the $4.2 billion for FY 2011 and the $4.8 billion for FY 2012. Will that completely end homelessness in the U.S.?

My best educated guess is: No – at least not in the short term. And certainly not if we continue to address homelessness along the same lines we have historically done.

We have been aggressive at trying to shelter and feed as many of our nation’s homeless as we can – with some measure of success. However, we haven’t been equally as assertive in creating solutions to assist them become re-housed, attain some measure of self-sustainability and regain their place in our communities. And the outcome has been that homelessness becomes a self-perpetuating cycle for many of them – with little or no hope for escape.

I’m not suggesting that ending homelessness is an easy task. I know it’s not. In fact, it may be one of the most difficult social issues for us to address.

Yet, I believe that if we approach it with an eye toward creating more permanent housing solutions – and not merely temporarily sheltering the homeless – we can make significant headway at reducing the numbers of people living on the streets of our communities.

In order for that to happen however, we have to re-prioritize how we spend the funding we already have.

Are we going to look to increase the numbers of meals and shelter beds we provide? Or are we going use that funding for the purpose which it was intended for in the first place: that of helping the homeless rebuild their lives?

To be honest, if it were left up to me, I would reduce the amount being spent on homeless shelters by about half, and then re-direct the balance toward housing programs for the homeless.

On the surface, the approach I would use may sound a bit cruel and inhumane. And I’m sure there are those – including those from within the homeless support services industry – who would strongly disagree with my position.

Nonetheless, if you really stop and think about it: the more of our nation’s homeless who we can help become housed and self-supporting, the less homeless there will be who we would have to shelter and feed.

Not only would it benefit those we help, but it would strengthen and improve our communities as well. And that would be a good thing, don’t you think?

I can’t stress this point enough:

Sheltering our nation’s homeless is a wonderful thing. It befits the American spirit and shows that we care enough about those of our fellow citizens who have hit bottom. It shows that our hearts are in the right place. In fact, some communities have even succeeded in providing enough shelter beds to accommodate the majority of its homeless population.

New York City – for example – is able to provide shelter for more than 85 percent of its homeless. Yet when all is said and done, it doesn’t make them any less homeless, only sheltered. And if you ask anyone experiencing homelessness, they will tell you that there is a diametric difference between being sheltered and being housed.

Does ending homelessness require more funding?

Perhaps to some extent. And it would certainly help.

But equally as important is how effectively we use the funding we already have.

What comes to mind is something Ernest Hemingway said:

"Never mistake motion for action."

Up till now, when it has come to addressing homelessness, we’ve being engaged in a good deal of motion.

Now it’s time to begin solving homelessness. That requires more than just funding. It requires action.

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Comments
  1. Galaxian says:

    The unfortunate and fundamental problem, taboo for discussion, nonetheless remains: Those who get up in the morning and go to work to pay their rent generally resent those who do not. This is the principle of less eligibility in its simplest and starkest terms. Some homeless persons who can follow social norms can be helped. Others, who are unable or unwilling to comply with nonnegotiable demands upon which any assistance will be predicated, will not become self-supporting. As for the economic side of the problem, affordable housing is not built by private enterprise because it is not profitable enough, and because local communities tend to oppose it. Hence, decent low-cost housing requires subsidies that greatly inflate the costs, defeating its purpose. I suspect the problem of homelessness is deeply built into the structure of our society and will likely never see a real solution.

    • poorlocavore says:

      Galaxian,
      Interesting comment, partially because of this:

      “Those who get up in the morning and go to work to pay their rent generally resent those who do not.”

      Homeless people don’t have rent, because they don’t have homes. I imagine that most homeless folks would be glad to change their status. The root problem there is that not having a fixed address prevents engagement with society on any number of levels, including being able to find and keep a job to pay for said rent. Nowadays, with the few available jobs not going to the long-term unemployed, that problem will only get worse if left to itself. The government is in a position to provide leverage here.

      Michael’s method would likely provide the needed subsidies for suitable low-income housing and services, especially for the families and others who have been newly cast out of their homes due to the Great Recession. I’d also like to see part of the overstock of abandoned housing across this country put to good use as homes for those who need them.

  2. David J Dunworth says:

    For the record, funding is in a terrible state for the homeless, as evidenced by my own personal fight to find it. I am owner of Homes with Heart Memphis, a project specifically designed for special needs individuals. We provide all inclusive shared housing; everything from toilet paper to yard service, pots and pans to laundry detergent.

    I tried for more than 15 months (october 09 to Jan 11) to arrange for any type of government funding and was entirely shut down. The Obama Administration made cuts to special needs within the first days of his election to office. It hasn’t gotten any better to this date.

    • michael says:

      David,

      Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment.

      Regarding “funding” — I personally believe that President Obama’s cutting of funding for special needs individuals was irresponsible. However, in this post, I was referring to funding specifically directed at ending and preventing homelessness. “Special needs” funding and funding allocated for the homeless are not one and the same when it comes to the Federal Budget, and subsequently are handled differently by the bureaucracy.

      – m –

  3. Galaxian says:

    Obviously not to knock efforts to help people find housing, especially where it is a homeowner losing to foreclosure. However, many of the homeless will require intensive mental health or substance abuse care as well as a place to stay. There are often overwhelming psychological difficulties involved for this population. Usually a person ends up on the street with a blanket because they have been unable to adapt to a former social environment, which responded by rejecting them. The resentful attitude of working folks is not one a admire or agree with. However, it is reality. It is what is keeping the Tea Party in business so that we end up with a private property state that no longer provides any social services whatsoever. When setting out to help, intentions are good, but the intractability of the problems is usually underestimated. Best of luck to your project. If you are careful in picking candidates for the apartments, it might be quite helpful.

    • michael says:

      Galaxian,

      Your information is incorrect.

      You stated that: ” . . . many of the homeless will require intensive mental health or substance abuse care as well as a place to stay.”

      Statistics have already definitively shown that those homeless who suffer mental health and/or substance abuse issues are in the minority. Subsequently, it would have been more accurate to say that some of the homeless will require assistance in those areas.

      In addition, you you stated: ” . . . Usually a person ends up on the street with a blanket because they have been unable to adapt to a former social environment . . .”

      That statement is also incorrect.

      Data points to the continued increase in poverty and the continued decrease in affordable housing as the primary cause of homelessness. Moreover, families are now, by far, the fastest growing segment of the U.S.’s homeless population — with children representing slightly over one-third of the nation’s homeless.

      As for placing the blame for this on any one political party: Based on my research (as well as tracking legislation as it pertains to the nation’s homeless) the reality is that all political parties share an equal amount of blame.

      – m –

  4. Galaxian says:

    I will agree that many particulars regarding homelessness are open questions. I do not style myself as an expert on this topic. No official statistics on homelessness are kept by the Census Bureau or any other federal agency, other than a one-time shelter and street count conducted March 21, 1990 which did not claim to be exhaustive. The Urban Institute publishes estimates showing very roughly 1 million homeless persons in the USA by their definitions, about 75% of which are single adult males. Families and children are indeed the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population in relative terms. Family homelessness used to be rare, but is no longer so.

    I stand by my belief that serious personal, social, or psychological problems beset most persons who are currently living on the street. If simply given the keys to an apartment, most will lose them within months due to lack of needed household management skills. Overcoming chronic homelessness is very difficult. I can speak from personal experience working in a homeless shelter and from knowing homeless people, though of course I do not know everything and hope to learn more.

    Very interesting conversation, and thanks.

    • michael says:

      Galaxian,

      I am familiar with the Urban Institute report you are referring to. It’s conclusions are based on older data that does not reflect the more recent (and more accurate) enumerations of the homeless in the U.S.

      Regarding your statement:

      “No official statistics on homelessness are kept by the Census Bureau or any other federal agency, other than a one-time shelter and street count conducted March 21, 1990 which did not claim to be exhaustive.”

      HUD is the branch of the Federal Government responsible for maintaining the “official statistics” on homelessness in the U.S. — and, they publish the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR). You can find more information on the AHAR here.

      Regarding the difficulty in helping the chronically homeless — feel free to read my post: Why use a ‘Housing First’ approach?

      In it, I point to data contained in HUD’s most recent AHAR which shows that the use of a ‘Housing First’ approach has succeeded in reducing the numbers of chronically homeless persons in the U.S by a significant margin.

      – m –

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