The message would seem patent—the first step towards solving homelessness is to get those without housing a home. Yet this obvious notion has been imbued with renewed meaning since the introduction of federal “Housing First” and “Rapid Transition to Housing” initiatives, to be implemented under the recently passed 2009 HEARTH Act. According to the parameters of this legislation, HUD has 18 months to enact new permanent housing programs, of which about 8 months remain. While it might seem logical to declare that for an individual living in a situation of homelessness, obtaining permanent, long-term housing is the first priority. Yet according to how social welfare programs are often contemporarily actualized, other services are in fact prioritized over the establishment of a stable home, such as temporary shelter accommodation, day programs, and mental health care.
Housing First was the theme of a recent interfaith meeting of religious leaders in Waltham, a gathering that was devoted to the proposition that homelessness can be solved. According to an article by Joyce Kelly in March 29th issue of the Waltham Daily News Tribune, “never before have so many religious groups and faiths met to talk about homelessness in the area.” In attendance were representatives of 17 local ministries and organizations devoted to helping individuals experiencing homelessness. The common consensus across the diverse perspectives present, according to the Kelly article, was that “permanent housing must be the first priority, followed by service programs such as mental health counseling or food stamps.”
It is exciting news if society’s leaders are trending towards conceptualizing homelessness as a solvable problem, as broad, national level legislation such as the HEARTH Act and local collaborations such as the Waltham meeting seem to represent. Yet it important that housed advocates not get lost in the exhilaration of novel ideas before outcomes can be measured. Housing First makes economic sense; temporary housing programs cost state governments exorbitant amounts of money to lodge individuals and families in substandard housing situations such as emergency and transitional shelters and motels. Still, the upfront investment necessary to procure permanent housing for someone without a home might seem prohibitive in comparison to maintenance of status quo funding allocation. Therefore, legislators may be reluctant to introduce innovative plans to eradicate homelessness, which is what Housing First—at least in theory—seeks to address.
Of course, implicit to this entire discussion yet rarely publicly aired is the fact that it is not in the immediate interest of everyone to eliminate homelessness from America. Nationwide, thousands of human service professionals, nonprofit managers, government employees, and others rely on the extant shelter system for jobs. If the need for this network were erased overnight, the consequences for many housed individuals and families would be severe. This is not to suggest that shelter system employees are nefarious in character, or that these good people are not truly devoted to service of less fortunate persons. But I do believe that since homelessness as a social problem has become so apparently intractable—and one that is in fact continuously worsening—that many human service workers are overwhelmed, overworked, relatively underpaid, and therefore feel unable to combat the status quo. These people also have personal lives, and after a week of concentrating on the woes of others, little energy may be left to search for innovative solutions to homelessness on Saturday.
I must admit, I too sometimes unfortunately feel dubious about the situation of homelessness as a solvable problem. According to State Representative Byron Rushing (D- 9th Suffolk District), the keynote speaker at the recent gathering in Waltham, such skepticism is normal for an individual of my age. In his oration, he noted, “It’s really 20 or 30 years of this incredible situation in the country, of thousands of people, boys and girls, men and women, not having a place to live, a permanent shelter. That means Americans 20 to 30 years old or younger don’t know that it wasn’t like this, always.” He’s right—at 25, I certainly can’t remember a time in my life when the word “homeless” didn’t automatically conjure stereotypical images of misery, raving women with tangled gray hair, men sprawled across park benches, feral-eyed teenagers huddled in doorways.
Reading Representative Byron’s words inspired feelings of hope. It is reassuring to have reinforced the knowledge that homelessness is a social problem produced by social choices, and that it is not natural or inevitable. People have directly and indirectly created this regrettable phenomenon, through policy decisions and cultural practices, which are as diverse as free market global capitalism on the right and a welfare system in need of comprehensive reform on the left. Through Rep. Byron’s words, I was inspired to know that someone remembers an American era during which widespread homelessness did not exist, and to recognize that some of our leaders are truly committed to the cause, rhetoric aside.
Despite the logic that supports the concept, it is important to remember that Housing First is not a panacea. As Robert Karash noted in his op/ed in the February 25th edition of this publication, “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.” Therefore, if policies to facilitate permanent housing are enacted, it is crucial to remember that while a home may be the first priority for someone who has lived on the street, it is not the only relevant concern.
After housing security has been established, other initiatives must ensure that individuals and families have access to quality physical and mental health care, employment opportunities, education and skills trainings, social supports, community participation and civic life. Not all of these needs must be met by governmental programming. But solutions do require input from us all, whether housed or formerly or currently without housing. Regardless of background or experience, our voices add value to the conversation. Share yours at sparechangenews.net; click on ‘Blog’ under the Multimedia tab. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.