Have Homeless Support Services become nothing more than big business?

Posted: June 28, 2011 in Bureauacracy, Employment, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Stupidity

Is it just me? Or does it seem paradoxical to anyone else that there are those who are employed and have housing only because there are folks who are homeless?

Even more staggering to me is that homeless support services (HSS) in the U.S. — something which started out with altruistic, well-meaning intentions — has become little more than big business. It is a multi-billion dollar industry annually. Sadly, it has also become quite bureaucratic in its own right.  

I have yet to come across any definitive numbers regarding how many people are directly employed by the HSS industry nationwide. But it could easily reach into the tens-of-thousands or more. Then there are all of the people and companies who do business with HSS in any given community.

To put it bluntly: there is an entire micro-economy that revolves around the HSS industry. And for me, that raises a number of questions. Chief among them is: Is the HSS industry genuinely interested in solving homelessness?

It may seem unfair of me to ask that question. Nonetheless it has occurred to me that solving homelessness sets up a conflict of interest for the HSS industry. After all, if there were no homeless there would be no need for HSS to exist. It follows then, if HSS did manage to end homelessness, they would be putting themselves out of business. And let’s face it, no sane person wants to be so successful at what they do that they put themselves out of a job — especially during harsh economic times such as our nation is currently experiencing.

Don’t misunderstand me. I certainly do not believe — nor am I making allusions — that the average HSS employee is making money hand over fist. I have a number of friends who work in the HSS industry and they’re struggling to make ends meet like everyone else. Also, please take note: I am not asserting that HSS employees are refraining from solving homelessness as a matter of self-interest. Again, I point to those of my friends who work for HSS. They are caring, compassionate people who would dearly love to see the numbers of homeless be significantly reduced in their community. But their hands are tied as far as what they are able to do.

And why is this?

Because of the "head honchos" of the HSS industry.

You know who I’m talking about. They are the top of the proverbial food-chain. They are the ones who have the final say as to what types of services are offered to the homeless and to what extent. They are the ones who make and implement HSS policy — which, as a consequence, has created the ensuing bureaucracy. And, unlike the average HSS employee, they aren’t earning minimum wage. In fact, based on the some of the research I’ve done, some of them are making rather hefty annual salaries.

Unfortunately, as is so often true, they are also the ones who are the furthest removed from knowing what is happening at "ground level." As a result, they are more concerned with the overall aggregate numbers of people fed and sheltered than they are with how many folks their organizations assist escaping homelessness and becoming re-housed.

What it comes down to is this: they are overly focused on the quantity of services they offer than they are with the quality of solutions they provide.

Their typical reaction to the homeless situation in their communities is invariably the same: increasing the numbers of beds and meals served. For some odd reason, seldom do they think along the lines of implementing programs that genuinely help the homeless attain some measure of self-sustainability. As such, the final outcome turns out to be nothing more than "business as usual" — except on a larger, more expensive scale.

But ultimately what happens is the lack of progress at reducing the numbers of homeless across the nation.

Over the last few years, most of Americans have grown weary hearing about stimulus packages and/or the need to bailout big businesses at taxpayer’s expense — especially when we hear about top executives of those same businesses receiving millions of dollars in bonuses while the rest of us are living hand to mouth. The usual excuse given to the American people for bailing these corporations out is that they are "too big to fail."

It’s an interesting turn of phrase: too big to fail.

But, as that phrase pertains to the HSS industry, I don’t think it’s become "too big to fail."

Instead, I think it may have become too big to succeed.

  1. Rev. Cynthia says:

    Like the War & Welfare Machines, the HSS “industry” needs war & poverty to justify being. Most nonprofits are supposed to be working toward going out of “business” – solving the issues, so that they no longer need to exist. However, it sure doesn’t seem to work out that way, huh?

  2. freddie says:

    Hi. I Live in slo county. Since 93. I recently became homeless due to a head injury I sustained ten years ago. The prado day centerc, the old non profit Eoc who just recently changed their name. Last five years they have bought the workers vehicles, hundreds of vehicles, in which they have an account at a local wash. A wash there cost a min of fifteen dollars. You do the math. I only know that because I use to work at that car wash. I was disgusted by this. And didn’t know why until I became homeless three months ago. After four years of residency, someone bought my house and kicked me out, stole my deposit, during the worst of my disability. I go to these non profits for help. They offer no help. Except lunch and dinner and a bed. Which I’m highly grateful for. But these workers act as if it comes out of their pocket. And demand respect. There is another organization for north county. One organization for the whole north county. And it’s in a little church by the high school. They serve dinner and offer a bed. Once again. No long term help. No offering. Of what services are available, or counseling, or anything. Once your in the dorms there is no leaving. Everyone realized, and sometimes random drug test, often leaving people to sleep under the bridge. Because unfortunately, sometimes addiction causes homelessness. And when you kick them down your kicking someone who’s already down. They already have no self respect. They don’t need you reminding them. So that’s the judgmental help we get in slo. And that’s just a taste of it.. been living it for three months now.

  3. Steven Samra says:

    Michael, I’ve been working pretty closely with some of the biggest federal agencies associated with homelessness over the past couple of years; it’s one of the reasons I’ve not posted much in my own blog or commented much elsewhere. I know all too well what you’re talking about and the general perception of most of my colleagues at the national level is that we could end homelessness tomorrow “if we really wanted to.” The caveat here is that it isn’t about the big agencies being either too big to fail or succeed.

    Surely you understand that when it comes right down to it, all homelessness is addressed at the local level. Certainly we see grants that come from federal programs but those grants only assist local agencies in addressing homelessness in their communities. The majority of the time, it is the lack of political will, the obstinacy of local community members, and the aggressiveness of local police departments that create the conditions for long-term, chronic homelessness. Gentrification that eliminates affordable housing options. Employers who pay wages so low that a man or woman earning minimum wage cannot afford the rent of an apartment anywhere -anywhere – in the country. Convictions for “quality of life” citations that saddle an individual with a criminal record, further reducing his/her chances at extricating themselves from poverty. a general public so ignorant about the causes of homelessness that they stamp their feet every time a plan or program to actually end homelessness (e.g. housing first via permanent supportive housing) and shout “not in my back yard!” restrictions on obtaining any type of housing so strict that most folks who have spent time on the streets will never qualify for a unit.

    Couple these local barriers and challenges with the fact that at the national level, our priorities are nowhere near aligned with what the citizenry of this country actually want, and you’ve set up a system to fail on multiple fronts.

    It isn’t really fair to point the finger at HHS and claim they either aren’t doing enough to succeed or are too big to fail. You know better than most that the issue of homelessness is a complex one, with no single solution – not even affordable housing for all without support services to help folks remain housed once they’re in – will address the myriad reasons a person can spiral into homelessness.

    Rather, the finger should be pointed at those who establish skewed national priorities, spending trillions on wars and defense, providing huge subsidies to corporations while proposing a cut of $75 miillion in VASH vouchers, etc. The folks working at HHS do what they can with what they’re provided, and while it isn’t perfect, it’s come a long way in moving to end homelessness rather than managing it. The pushback isn’t at that level my friend, it’s at the state and local levels where people are reluctant to implement evidence-based practices proven to dramatically reduce chronic homelessness in communities (again, Housing First and permanent supportive housing come immediately to mind).

    Good reading you again my friend, and I hope today finds you well.

    • michael says:

      Hi Steven,

      First . . . I hope that all is going well with you, my friend. I know you’ve been overly busy with all of the advocacy you’ve been doing, so I’m pleased that you dropped by.

      Onto the point I was trying to make —

      My biggest disappointment is with the Homeless Support Services (HSS) industry itself, not with the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services (HHS).

      You’re correct that homelessness is better dealt with at the local level. That’s as it should be. Local HSS groups are, after all, closer to the homeless situation within their immediate geographical area than the U.S. Dept of HHS is.

      Even so, I personally think that HHS should engage in better oversight in how the grant funding they are distributing to local agencies is utilized. In essence, I believe that a percentage (for sake of argument, let’s use 35% as an example figure) of all  Federal funding allocated toward helping the nation’s homeless should be directed exclusively for use in “Housing First” programs — with the remainder being used for the traditional sheltering and feeding of the homeless.

      As it stands at present, whenever any local HSS agency receives its government funding, it’s used — almost invariably — to provide the historic services of “a meal and a bed.” While these types of services are in and of themselves humanitarian in nature, you and I both know that nothing solves homelessness better than housing. And, until more communities across the nation implement (and not just talk about) a “Housing First” approach, homelessness will continue to be a “revolving door” issue.

      Again . . . thanks for dropping by, my friend. All my best wishes to you and your loved ones.

      – m –

      • Steven Samra says:

        It is a pleasure to visit here, Michael, and as usual, your points are important and it’s clear you’re aware of the problems that plague our system. Let me make a couple more points on this issue to help clarify why it is that it seemingly takes freakin’ forever to get something done at the higher national levels.

        One of the biggest issues that surround housing first programs is that until recently, there hasn’t been much empirical evidence available to support the approach. That of course is now changing with Bill Hobson’s very thorough research on Seattle’s Eastlake project (see a single page eval here) and Sam Tsemberis’ Pathways to Housing. We are now beginning to obtain solid proof that Housing First can be considered an evidenced-based practice. I know to you and I, it’s a damned no-brainer. But to those who hold the purse strings, they’ve got to see research on it that proves it actually does what we already know it does and they are in no hurry to fund programs without it.

        The second issue is that while we can mandate that grant funds be made available to Housing First programs, there are plenty of cities and towns who have nowhere near the political will to make a Housing First program available in their city.

        I was recently in Boise, Idaho, which has a significant number of people experiencing homelessness, and met with Jayne Sorrels from the Interfaith sanctuary there. We had a meeting with a gentleman who works with the local government to address homelessness in the city and they are absolutely stuck in the “housing readiness” model, as are places like Nashville, TN, and countless other cities.

        This is because although Housing First works, there is still significant resistance to it in many communities for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it can be a real hard sell to members of a community. Many are righteously indignant, and perhaps a bit jealous as well, that we are essentially “rewarding” folks for their addictions and “laziness” by “giving” them free housing. The only argument that seems to hold any sway at all with folks who think like this is the one about the cost savings a community can experience by moving chronically homeless individuals into housing.

        We have a long way to go at the local level. my brother, and the folks at the top of the federal food chain are just one kink in the path to ending homelessness for good. I think, after spending the last two years traveling the country and speaking with literally thousands of people in various communities all over the nation, that we’ve only begun to raise awareness about the root causes of homelessness and there is still an overwhelming amount of ignorance, prejudice and stigmatization occurring. While I agree that more funding needs to be designated to evidence-based practices like Housing First, I think we need even more emphasis placed on increasing the understanding of homelessness within our communities. Until that happens, all the money in the world tossed at a new housing project is not going to offset the push-back local groups can muster when they NIMBY a project right out of town.

        Heading to Washington DC tomorrow to the NAEH annual conference where I’ll be presenting on outreach and criminal barriers impacting juveniles experiencing homelessness, so it may be a bit before I return. Keep fighting that good fight my friend and know that I appreciate every single post you put out because the more we talk about this, the better informed people around us are going to be.

        Peace bro,

        • michael says:


          It’s interesting that you brought up the “Housing First” approach and the lack of empirical evidence. However, with the release of HUD’s most recent Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the data now exists.

          Also, after your previous comment yesterday (and my subsequent reply), I realized that there were a couple of things about “Housing First” I wanted to address. I am nearly complete with a post which I hope to publish here tomorrow morning with — interestingly enough — the title of “Why is ‘Housing First’ such a tough sell?”

          Hope you drop by and let me know your thoughts . . .

          Give them “what for” in D.C.

          – m –

    • cliffrad says:

      I like the insight you bring. But you know virtually no one cares about the homeless. And I can prove it. How many live in your home, the writers home our for that matter in the homes of the church community, or any of the social workers you mentioned homes.

      Now if our moms, sisters or brothers were out there we’d bring them in. Why not the homeless. That is rhetorical. We both know the answer.

      Cool stuff. But people need to change; care and act personally. This isn’t a solution no more than jails and a judicial system stops crime. These are things that simply need to be done for their individual reasons.


  4. Rev. Cynthia says:

    @ Steven~ am so thrilled that you will be presenting @ the NAEH conference in D.C.! I was hoping that Bri would also be speaking @ the conference this summer. I attended the one on Family Homelessness in the Bay area this past February & ran into Mark Horvath there. Small world…

    Sounds like you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what’s going on nationwide – Fabulous!

  5. Jeremy Weir Alderson says:

    Boy, I sure think you missed the point, especially if you’re cooperating with the NAEH, which is to ending homelessness what Satanism is to religion. Sure, homeless services have become a bureaucracy, but what else could they be? The actual solutions to homelessness, which are not obscure, are not even being seriously discussed. Just for starters, we need a massive jobs program, a massive program to build and refurbish housing, a substantial raise in the minimum wage, national health care (real, not fake like Obama’s), and above all, a recognized right to survive. Homeless encampments are routinely destroyed by the authorities, and where is the outrage? And what is the NAEH talking about? Ten year plans that have not reduced overall homelessness in America and never will. The “services” mentality is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and what’s wrong with it isn’t that it has become institutionalized but that it has become a substitute for real action to end this crisis.

    • michael says:


      It’s may be coincidence that you mentioned “10-year plans to end homelessness” — stating that they’ve done nothing to reduce homelessness (although I disagree with your assertion).

      Regarding that issue, however, you might be interested in reading my take on both “Housing First” and 10-year plans in general in my recent post, “Why is ‘Housing First’ such a tough sell?” (You can find it here.)

      – m –

  6. Darkforbid says:

    Seems that poverty of all types, is fuelling the growing charity sector… funny by not having housing we provide jobs and housing for more people than are homeless… strange we are not given respect for that, but such is life

    nice blog

    • michael says:

      ” . . . funny by not having housing we provide jobs and housing for more people than are homeless . . .”


      You statement touches upon one of many paradoxes of homelessness. And it puts a rather ironic twist to the phrase “Get a job!”, doesn’t it?

      Also, it causes me to wonder how many people would be unemployed if there were no homeless whatsoever.

      – m –

  7. Rev. Cynthia says:

    Michael, what is interesting about the “Get a job!” philosophy of many housed folks, who have no earthly idea about homelessness is, as you know, the fact that many people who are experiencing homelessness are working or have incomes from Social Security retirement or disability, but it is simply not enough money to be able to afford housing.

    If there were no more people living in poverty and the Welfare Machine had to close shop, then whatever percentage of those previously employed workers, who could not find other work, would become poor & perhaps homeless – quite an interesting cycle.

  8. I think that is such a valid point you made! I completely agree with you. I have started my own campaign (icare4homeless.wordpress.com) to help out the homeless and I’m really glad you are conveying the ‘real’ message here. :)

What's your opinion?

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.