Housing Lost, Housing Regained, Housing Kept

Robert L. Karash

Homelessness in this world isn’t going away easily despite all efforts to eradicate it as a syndrome and all sincere attempts to help people back on their feet by giving them a hand up, not a hand out.

People—including politicians and social scientists—like to say “The solution to homelessness is housing.” Although the notion makes perfect sense, and is the obvious rejoinder to the calamity and immensity of the homelessness conundrum, it just may not be that simple.

It is important to establish that there are many kinds of homelessness, some of which are chosen. A hobo after the American Civil War, jumping on railroad freight trains perhaps felt an attraction to that life, as a traveler, rebel, or wanderer just for the anarchy of it. But the fact is that such transience is an elected way of life for only a very small number of people, today more relevant as the stuff from which folk songs are fashioned.

Then there is situational or temporary homelessness. This is where someone’s house burns down and they didn’t have insurance, and they were already barely getting by before the disaster. They didn’t choose it and it wasn’t their fault. Generally, with help of one’s friends, family, relief organizations, and society itself, this problem gets solved in short order and they are back on their feet.

Then there’s chronic homelessness, which is a horse of an entirely different color, and a situation that can become a way of life.

Modern homelessness grew into an epidemic in the 1970s out of the deinstitutionalization of state mental hospitals which was driven by financial constraints, availability and use of newer medicines which could control mental illness outside of the hospital setting, and the altruistic desire to reintegrate people back into mainstream society. The idea was to close hospitals, put patients on psychotropic medicines, have them live in a neighborhood community in a SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel, and locate a community mental health center in their new neighborhood with social workers for support, all in order to solve the societal problem of the discarded.

But the model didn’t quite work.

When people lost the social milieu that they had in the state hospitals, they also lost their bearings. They didn’t have a replacement community to form a mutual support network in mainstream society. As a result, many deinstitutionalized men and women shut themselves inside their SRO room with a TV and a sandwich. Perceived isolation prevented them from getting to the community mental health center to have access to support, assessment, and needed medications. Sometimes they didn’t remember and weren’t reminded to pay the rent for their room. Eventually, outside reality caught up and eviction forced these individuals onto the street and into chaos. Some became the bag people, offensive looking in appearance, the outcasts again. But this time they were camped out on Main Street and that’s when society noticed. They might be panhandling on the streets, sleeping in subways, in the street, and under bridges. They were now in society’s direct view.

Added into this mix were substance abusers, people estranged from their families, recently released prisoners, and members of our society otherwise lost. But it was one face being seen, simply “the homeless”, undifferentiated. And the problem of understanding their pain, suffering, and stories was so distressful to society that they had to be treated as simply invisible. These “invisible” people would surface only to haunt society, sometimes by committing crimes, yelling in rage at their situation in public, or being drunk in the middle of town.

Since that time, not too much has changed, at least to the casual observer. The homeless are still perceived as an alien group, invisible to the mainstream public. Now there are emergency and transitional homeless shelters, as well as meals served, but their clients are still perceived as living in a parallel universe. Church groups and community volunteers give their time to soup kitchens but even these volunteers are bewildered. Like most of mainstream society, they wonder “Why don’t they just get a job?”, or “Where is their family?”, or “Why do they choose to be homeless?”

The McKinney-Vento Act was signed by President Reagan in 1987. It was landmark legislation for helping the homeless. It provided funding for services—including emergency overnight shelters—as well as programs to help them get back on their feet if they could do so. The modern homeless shelter was given a birthright. There was a definite place to go to get food and have a bed to sleep in overnight with fresh linens, but in the morning they had to leave and go back onto Main Street until the next evening when the cycle repeated. There were counselors available to them at the shelters and they could use the shelter’s address as their own mailing address.

Then a level of comfort, along with a milieu or social community, emerged within the homeless population.

Society’s objection was that this comfort could produce institutionalization and complacency, indefinitely.

Some homeless individuals did get off of the street, back to work, or into their own housing. Others didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t for a variety of reasons such as illness, criminal record, or active substance abuse which could only be tolerated within the homeless shelter model.

The McKinney-Vento Act also established the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), whose goal was to end homelessness by trying to get people off the streets, out of the emergency shelters, and back into mainstream life. As time passed by with this altruistic goal, major cities whose shelters and services were at least partially funded by federal HUD money were asked to come up with a five or ten year plan to end homelessness. Some cities and states responded, but not all. The problem looked solvable on paper but local officials were reluctant to promise the federal government that they could eliminate homelessness in their cities.

Then a new initiative came up: Housing First. That is, instead of someone entering the emergency homeless shelter system and getting stuck in it as a lifestyle, the thought was to get people into mainstream permanent housing as soon as possible to avoid the paradoxical allure of the shelter system. Homeless men and women would pay a small part of their income—if they had any—toward the rent of the apartment, perhaps thirty percent. The rest of the rent would be subsidized by the government. They would be helped in getting furniture and domestic items for their new place. They would be followed up on, and checked for stability. They would be reconnected with an outside social milieu of people. All would be good.

It’s so tempting to look at the numbers and give this initiative our blessing. For example, suppose it costs the government $100 a night to give someone a bed in an emergency shelter. If we factor in all the burden and ancillary costs, such as salaries of the shelter workers, meals, labor for bedding and blanket laundry, and maintenance. That amounts to $36,500 a year for one homeless person to sleep in an emergency shelter bed. It’s therefore very enticing as an argument to secure for that person a $1,000 per month apartment on Main Street, some donated furniture, then send them off with best wishes into their new home. In that flash of a pan, that superficial transformation, $24,500 per year would be saved as a cost to society, just on that one person alone. It seems to make financial and moral sense.

But there’s a snag.

It’s frankly very hard for most disenfranchised people who have been chronically homeless to re-adapt to life on Main Street and—most importantly—to live up to their part of the bargain and hold on to their apartments. This is the Achilles heel of housing; when people lose their apartment to eviction. It seems absurd that formerly homeless individuals would lose their new apartment. But it’s not. It happens more frequently than we’d like to think.

People who once had a social milieu and the structure provided by the shelter system lose it when they’re on their own. Surely, at some point in their life before ever becoming chronically homeless, most had a good job, a family, a place to call home, and a life.

But that’s gone now.

So, when these people get their new apartment instead of being hidden in the shelter system, they might get frazzled or just overwhelmed.

A TV, a couch, a bed, a kitchen table, and keys to their house just might not be enough to make life stable, especially for those who are fleeing a life of substance abuse, are post-incarceration, or are trying to cope with estrangement from society and family. Loneliness creeps in and they might start hanging out with the wrong crowd, doing the wrong thing, which if measured as a middle-term to long-term outcome, will show failure. Shorter-term outcome measurement and reporting to funding sources will almost always show success. So there’s a false confidence in reporting statistics.

Once a re-housed person gets evicted, it’s difficult to get another place to live. So they’re back into the emergency shelter system.

But the question remains of whether these formerly homeless people now living in their own places will be able to be strong in the absence of social supports, retaining their new homes and lives. The answer is that we hope they can but that we aren’t sure across the whole population, many of whose members suffer from different issues or the interaction of several afflictions. The supports have to be in place so that the mistake of deinstitutionalization of the 1970s doesn’t get repeated.

This is a formidable challenge. It’s tantamount to helping a person get sober and then stay sober or to kick any habit that rules one’s life. Counselors will tell the public that it isn’t that easy. People relapse into old habits sometimes, if not many times. Relapses are to be expected in most cases for people on the way to permanent sobriety or life change. At some point, the process hopefully catches hold and they keep clean and sober, experiencing the so-called “moment of clarity.” It might not be a substance abuse issue but just a new life attitude without despair, since despair itself—which is the crux of the outcast—can be as much of a habit as alcohol.

So Housing First and “rapid re-housing” as passed and signed by President Obama in the 2009 HEARTH Act has some serious challenges ahead of it.

Society must do its part to help, even if that help is contained in a smile, an expressed acceptance, or in shared confidence to help this transformational process on its way. Should it be thought of as an isolated process and not one integrated with Main Street, then these formerly homeless, hopeless, and discarded people—albeit now with homes of their own again—will still remain outcasts. And no one wants that.

If there is a global answer to homelessness and even chronic homelessness, then it’s not just simply to provide housing. Rather, what’s needed is housing with supports to hold it up, with care and attention to the stability of the new household and to the newly welcomed and reintegrated member of mainstream society. This is a responsibility to be shared by everyone.

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