I get it, we sound nuts talking about ending homelessness. I mean, the audacity that WE could end this horrible plague on humanity that’s always been with us and always will be, right? And don’t some people choose to be homeless? Well, actually, no.
Homelessness as we know it today is actually pretty new in its size and scope. Radical shifts in treatment options available to those with persistent mental illness, growing gaps in income distribution, property ownership growing into a large profit industry, and large scale movements across the country away from familial supports to follow work have all played a role in homelessness as we have it today. These systemic influences can be seen reflected in the stories families and individuals tell about their own paths into homelessness.
The vision for ending homelessness is not that no person or family ever experiences a financial setback and loses their housing ever again. To end homelessness as we know it today would mean that if that setback does happen (and it would happen less frequently with the right safety nets in place) there would be resources immediately available to get that person or family into safe, permanent housing within weeks, even days. It would also mean that people would not be falling back into homelessness time after time. As we say it in the field, homelessness would be rare, brief and one-time.
What about people we see outside, that we think are choosing homelessness?
This thought assumes that the person you see is choosing to be outside over another option that is viable for them. They are choosing to be outside often because they have tried the other things offered to them in the past and they did not work. Maybe they were required to turn their belongings over in order to stay inside and this is too great a risk of loss after losing so much already. Perhaps they have an alcohol dependency and will begin to be ill if they are unable to drink for the 12 hours they would be in the shelter. Or it might be that they want to feel more in control of their life rather than in a program where they have little autonomy. What they are likely not choosing is to be outside rather than in their own home, with all the rights and responsibilities any of us would have.
Too often people experiencing homelessness are offered what other people think they need: a ham sandwich, a scarf, a sleeping bag. But what if we ask that person what it is they would need to get their life back? This question has been asked, and the number one answer was a home.
So how do we end homelessness? With housing—and that housing is quickly followed with supportive services. This is how we both reduce the people homeless today and returns to homelessness in the future. We help people build up their support systems, increasing income, building relationships—this helps them maintain housing. Through these efforts we can make homelessness rare, brief, and a one-time occurrence for our neighbors.
Come learn more about Housing First tomorrow, 6pm, Wednesday, November 16 at Fountain Street Church.