Ten Things to Learn About Social services for the Homeless
According to the website, Free Dictionary.com, a paradigm shift is “a radical change in underlying beliefs or theory.” (Jan., 2012)
When applied today to the homeless in the United States, educating the public, legislators and businesses to think differently about the homeless is a major task for social service organizations, such as The National Alliance to End Homelessness.
A deeper understanding of homelessness may help the nation move closer to a resolution.
Source: Abiiba Howell
Between 2001 and 2005, the National Alliance to End Homelessness increased its size, community outreach and educational efforts at the public and policy levels. Between 2005 and 2007, they witnessed a ten percent drop in homeless numbers, attributing the change to a shift in the way homelessness was viewed and addressed by policymakers. (June, 2010)
According to the organization, one element of their mission is to “…provide data and research to policymakers and elected officials in order to inform policy debates and educate the public and opinion leader(s) nationwide. ” While this is the approach that one organization takes, others, such as the Homeless Resource Center, serve as a curator of resources to educate and assist the stakeholders on both sides of the issue. This, while legislators work within their districts and collectively to address common issues, such as housing for the homeless and impoverished.
The Washington Post online newspaper reports a need to change the view of the homeless in an article, Five Myths About America’s Homeless (Culhane, July 11, 2010). The article states the myths as: “homelessness is usually a long-term condition; most of the homeless have a severe mental illness; homeless people don’t work; shelters are a humane solution to homelessness, and these poor you will always have with you.”
An article by the National Coalition for the Homeless dispels another myth, “According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20 to 25% of the homeless population in the United States suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill (National Institute of Mental Health, 2009).”
The Washington Post article, which reviews President Obama’s efforts to dramatically diminish homelessness within ten years, seeks to change the view many have of the homeless.
- According to President Obama’s, Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, legislators created the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and, through it, invested $1.5 billion in the recently created Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re Housing Program that seeks to support long-term affordable housing options for the homeless, along with other technical assistance resource tools.“The Affordable Care Act,” According to President Obama’s plan, “will provide new and more effective methods for targeting uninsured, chronically ill individuals as well as children, youth, and adults experiencing homelessness. In addition, through the leadership of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, we are coordinating and targeting existing homelessness resources, as well as mainstream programs that can help prevent homelessness in the first place.” (2011).
In support of the plan, The Committee to End Homelessness, describes itself as, “a broad coalition of government, faith communities, nonprofits, the business community and homeless and formerly homeless people working together to implement the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County.” Their efforts were so unique that Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government named the collaboration as “…one of (the) Top 25 Innovations in American Government.”
- According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, the population of the United States has grown steadily. Given this and the numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor growth from years 2001 through November 2011, reveal that while the labor force (those who are employed, whether full or part-time, ) has grown during that period, the unemployment rate also increased. The labor force grew by 3.989 million workers from 2001 to 2006, while there was greater growth from 2006 through 2011.
The National Coalition for the Homeless cites a basic definition for the homeless as defined by the Stewart B. McKinney Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq. (1994), as “one who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence…” The organization goes on to indicate the exclusion of incarcerated or otherwise detained populations in this definition. However, the characterization does include children and youth.
Aware of the growing numbers, the National Alliance to End Homelessness goes further, in its website, by describing the homeless as “those living in poverty, without affordable housing” and describes homelessness as occurring, “…when people or households are unable to acquire and/or maintain housing they can afford.”
Such was the case of the formerly homeless, now acclaimed, environmental artist, Charles Washington, who used homelessness as a way to change his circumstances by collecting old doors and materials found outdoors and turning them into works of art. “From being in the adverse situation, I’ve actually developed a business that will help me to go forward and have peace of mind and be more creative. My legacy is important.”
To counteract and dispel myths about the homeless, Marilyn Fountain, Director of Communications for the Star of Hope in Houston, Texas, discusses some of the challenges that contribute to people becoming homeless.
Marilyn Fountain of the Star of Hope Source: Abiiba Howell.
Examining areas with the greatest and least needs, non-seasonally adjusted figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that, in Los Angeles, approximately 1,978 million are unemployed, while the figures in the entire state of Montana are much lower with 32,749 reported homeless. (Updated January 4, 2012). The extreme ranges of unemployment in these areas, as evidenced in the infographic below, provide indicators to the agencies, the public and policymakers about which areas have the greatest need.
Fountain draws a correlation between unemployment and poverty, citing the latter as one of the byproducts of unemployment, “We have seen that when there is a drop in poverty, there is a resulting drop in homelessness.”
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the term poverty by using an income threshold per family. According to the bureau’s website, “If a family’s total income is less than the dollar value of the appropriate threshold, then that family and every individual in it are considered to be in poverty.” On the other hand, the research from the website at www.Dictionary.com, defines poverty as, “the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor.”
In order to bridge the gap between the employed and unemployed, organizations such as The National Alliance to End Homelessness, have been working to help the poor by putting pressure on lawmakers to enact legislation that would support job creation as well as provide affordable housing options.
- US Employment numbers for 2001, 2006, 2011. Data from US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Chart by Abiiba Howell
Governmental support of the homeless is demonstrated by President Barack Obama’s 2011 Budget Proposal to Boost Affordable Housing and Homeless Assistance. The proposal, which asks the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to increase assistance to homeless related programs, acknowledges that current emergency transition programs may still not go far enough.
Groups, such as The Veteran’s Group, provide basic services and housing for veterans who have substance abuse and other issues. New legislation has already begun to help needy veterans. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessnessstates that the number of homeless veterans declined 12% in 2011. (Jan., 2012)
While legislators work to create a stronger economy, organizations that work on behalf of the homeless continue to prepare their clients for entry into the workforce. In many cases, shelters, like Star of Hope, house families with young children.
“The opportunity to have a roof over their heads affords the advantage for the children to continue in school and receive meals and medical care while the parents look for work,” says Marilyn Fountain.
In Chicago the local newspaper, StreetWise, offers opportunities for the homeless to begin the process of moving towards self-sufficiency by allowing the homeless to purchase newspapers at a steep discount, sell them at retail price, usually for one dollar, and keep the difference.
When asked about homeless children and teens, James LoBianco, Executive Director of StreetWise, Inc., that publishes the StreetWise Newspaper, states, “Homeless children and teens are increasing. The number from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is up 16% at the beginning of this year over last year. To make matters worse, last school year CPS broke a record for the number of homeless students overall, ending the year with a total of 15,580.“
LoBianco refers to the increase in numbers, saying, “The economy is the driving factor for the increase in family/youth homelessness. Although the latest Chicago Point in Time Count showed a decrease in sheltered homeless families, the fact is that the majority of homeless families spend their nights floating from couch to couch rather than in a shelter bed.”
When asked what others can do, LoBianco says, “Legislators could support HR 32 (Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2011) which would expand eligibility for HUD programs to all children and youth identified as homeless by the schools. Business could help by being more open to hiring ex-offenders who have shown that they have changed their lives.”
Acknowledging their own work, LoBianco says, “StreetWise provides immediate access to a legitimate earned income. The difference between giving a vendor money and taking the magazine versus giving a vendor money and not taking the magazine is the difference between rewarding employment versus encouraging panhandling.”
“The agency motto is, “a hand up not a hand out.” By giving our clients a chance to earn an income as a StreetWise vendor, the agency provides a legitimate means for our clients to get themselves back on the road to financial self-sufficiency,” says LoBianco.
Whether policymaker or individual, it’s never to late to shift your theories on homelessness and find ways to lend a hand.
According to President Barack Obama, “It is simply unacceptable for individuals, children, families and our nation’s veterans to be faced with homelessness in this country.” (speech, June 18, 2009) (Opening Doors, Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, 2010).