Housing shouldn’t be treated as a rite of passage

Posted: May 31, 2011 in Compassion, Homelessness, Housing, Misconceptions, Morality, Stereotypes

Homelessness in the U.S. is an issue that has remained largely unsolved.

Too be sure, we’re getting better at offering shelter and meals to those experiencing homelessness. We’ve also become better at trying to provide better medical services to our homeless citizens. We’ve even eased up a bit on rigid registration requirements in our school systems to accommodate children who are homeless in an effort to provide them an opportunity to get an education.

Still — and despite all of that — the number of folks experiencing homelessness across our nation hasn’t declined. In fact, some communities have seen a sharp increase.  

I don’t believe we’ve been so unsuccessful at solving homelessness because we lack the "want to." Instead, I think it’s because we have been looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope.

Throughout the history of homeless support services (HSS) in our nation, our focus has been to "fix" the person so that they could somehow make their way back into the mainstream of the community. As a result, we’ve treated helping our homeless back into housing as a type of reward to be offered only after the person was "fixed."

To be fair, let me say that I can understand the basic reasoning behind that mindset. It is based in the idea that if you offer the prospect of housing it will create an incentive for the person to "shape up and fly right" in order to get off the streets.

The underlying flaw with that approach is that it operates under the presupposition that every homeless person is somehow at fault for their homelessness; that it’s somehow self-inflicted. Furthermore, it requires the individual or family to live up to our particular expectations before we are willing to proclaim them suitable to be housed. But then, when that approach fails to reduce homelessness in our communities, we hide behind the excuse that the homeless don’t want to be helped or that they prefer to be homeless. And nothing could be further from the truth.

In addition, we have been so overly obsessed with this fix-’em-up-then-move-them-on way of thinking that we’ve failed to recognize what should be the most obvious: First, regardless of what other personal issues or circumstances may exist in an individual or family’s life, they are homeless because they lack housing of their own. And second, once they are able to acquire housing of their own, they are no longer homeless.

The bottom line reality is that the majority of persons experiencing homelessness do not need to be "fixed." Nor do they need to be sheltered and fed long term. They need housing of their own. It’s that simple.

But somewhere along the line we’ve taken the wrong fork in the road. We’ve turned the charitable act of helping our nation’s homeless into some type of crusade to reform them before we are willing to empower them with housing. The end result is that there are literally tens of thousands of folks who remain homeless for longer periods of time than is necessary.

On the other hand, I suspect that some type of reform is probably necessary if we want to solve homelessness. But I think it is the homeless support services industry itself that needs reformation.

Please understand, I am not making that statement arbitrarily — or just to be contrary.

I, personally, would strongly endorse the approach we’ve historically used to address homelessness if there were definitive proof that it works. However, a century of homeless support services in this nation has failed to stem the tide of homelessness — much less reduce it. And quite honestly, I don’t think we can afford the luxury of waiting another hundred years in hopes that it might someday work. There are individuals and families that need housing now — not some distant time in the future.

If we are genuine about solving homelessness in our nation — and I believe we are — we need to shift our focus away from treating housing as a rite of passage. We need to recognize that housing is a fundamental and key component of helping to rebuild the lives of those members of our communities who are homeless.

Let me put it this way: If housing were indeed a rite of passage, how many folks who are currently housed would be "worthy" to remain housed?

It would be a bit ridiculous to strip them of their housing and toss them out into the streets just because they don’t measure up to our particular brand of morality, don’t you think? Likewise, isn’t it just as ridiculous to withhold assistance to help our nation’s homeless regain housing for that same reason?

  1. Greg says:

    I agree.

  2. Rev. Cynthia says:

    It continues to surprise me that the general population does not seem to understand that the handful of folks they see on the streets, who may clearly have issues that do need to be resolved (addiction & mental health challenges for example), that it is not understood that the vast majority of people, who are unhoused are invisible – many of them are simply the working poor, who blend in w/ the rest of society. It is also not to say that people, who do have issues need to be “fixed” prior to getting housed, as being housed first could certainly provide a safe base from where to work on any individual issues.

    This idea of “fixing” people reminds me of an exchange I had with my stepmother. She was convinced that if I only understood how to use budgeting software, my financial problems would magically disappear. She couldn’t seem to understand that $600. a month in disability benefits (Florida in 2006) was not going to be enough to pay for housing, utilities, food, & basic essentials. No amount of budgeting will solve not having the required funds for living expenses.

    In recent years, I also attended a “Budgeting” workshop that was held for survivors of domestic violence, who were in a shelter system. We all knew “how” to budget – again, it was an issue of not having enough money to live on – end of story.

    Thanks for another honest look into solving homelessness, Michael.

    Rev. Cynthia

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