Editor’s Note: In response to the last “Ten Things” column, the National Alliance to End Homelessness has written its take on how to deal with this troubling issue.
In July 2009, The Nation published a “Ten Things” piece titled “Ten Things You Need to Know to Live on the Streets.” The provocative and thoughtful piece elicited quite a response. We, however, respectfully disagree with the premise of the piece. Before submitting to the idea that there are things you need to know to live on the streets, we suggest that you consider whether living on the streets is necessary at all.
We’re no strangers to the issue of homelessness–rather, we’re quite well-versed in the subject. Homelessness, as we know, began in the 1980s and has persisted through the decades. Some see it as an inevitable byproduct of a diminishing affordable housing supply, a lack of well-paying jobs, tumult in the economic sector, and both globalization and urbanization. Many see it as an unavoidable social nuisance. Some don’t see it at all. But here, at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, we see it as a problem with a solution.
The causes of homelessness are many and complex–but the solution to homelessness heads toward one straight goal:
Here are ten steps you need to know about–and to take–to end homelessness:
. It’s simple: our problem is homelessness, and this complex, multifaceted problem requires a thoughtful, carefully concerted plan of attack. The most successful plans are built with the input and support of community leaders, elected officials, lawmakers, business leaders, service providers and residents.
Collect and examine the data
. You can’t know what you’re doing until you know what you’re dealing with. Most communities already have a way to count the number of homeless people in the area; some communities also collect information on how people become homeless, how long they stay homeless, how homeless people interact with agencies of care (it’s called HMIS). Examine these data and learn the characteristics specific to their homeless populations–good data will inform which strategies are enacted, how much those strategies will cost, and how the plans can be implemented and carried out.
Strengthen emergency prevention
. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Most communities have in place an emergency homelessness-prevention program–usually including rent, mortgage, and utility assistance; case management; landlord or lender intervention; and other programs that pull people back from the brink of homelessness. By expanding, strengthening and improving access to these emergency prevention services, communities can curtail homelessness when people come precariously close to the edge.
. Similarly, we also have a set of systems that help the low- and extremely low-income households. Most people and families who fall into homelessness were already engaged in programs that provide low-income people care and assistance (as most families and people who fall into homelessness are low-income to begin with). Others who fall into homelessness are “graduates” of various state institutions: foster care, incarceration, mental health facilities. If we can strengthen the existing assistance programs and create effective transition programs for those exiting state institutions, we can ensure that those most at risk of experiencing homelessness are kept from it.
. A key component of ending homelessness is reaching out to people who live on the street and encouraging them to embrace housing. But it’s often no easy task. Those who live on the street often suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. Persuading this population to accept housing requires an availability of “low-demand” housing–that is, housing that doesn’t mandate participation in treatment programs. While this “no-strings” approach may seem controversial, housing minimizes the ill-effects of street living (including both mental and physical distress), and stable housing creates a sense of safety and security that encourages participation in recovery treatments. While this step may seem distasteful to many, low-demand housing does encourage those needing help to seek it out.
. Shelter living is not the answer to homelessness, but it is an existing tool that can assist people temporarily. One of our goals is to shorten shelter stays as much as possible and move people quickly into housing. Strategies to shorten homelessness include incentivizing quick placement in permanent housing and holding shelters and similar service providers accountable for their past and present clients.
. One of the hardest parts of a housing-focused strategy is finding affordable housing that low-income or very low-income families can access. As affordable housing becomes a rarer and rarer commodity, fewer and fewer landlords see cause to rent to people with lower incomes, little savings, credit problems or spotty rental history. But there have been success stories–even in the most difficult areas (like LA and NY). What success requires is an investment from community leaders and a talented group of dedicated personnel to forge relationships with stakeholders, meet with prospective landholders and lay out the case for housing everyone.
. Once households are successfully re-housed, families and individuals should have rapid access to services: therapy, medical support, family assistance and other, similar services. These services can help families stabilize, promote individual and family well-being, and encourage self-sufficiency. Luckily, these services already exist through mainstream government programs–including TANF, SSI, Medicaid–and many others. The key is to link housing services with these existing social services.
. Permanent housing comes in two forms: affordable housing and supportive housing. Most people–especially families–need only the former. Some homeless people–especially the chronically homeless–require supportive services along with permanent housing. While housing challenges will persist for those with low and extremely low-income until the supply of affordable housing increases substantially, local communities and neighborhoods are making concerted efforts to spur the development of affordable housing and to encourage state and local participation in securing affordable housing for the homeless.
. The last step to achieving self-sufficiency. As with services, there are government programs that can assist the formerly homeless, especially those with disabilities. Many formerly homeless people can benefit from longer-term, career-based employment services as well as cash-assistance programs. The faster that people can access those kinds of programs, the shorter their route to permanent stability.
CONCEIVED by WALTER MOSLEY with research by Rae Gomes