It’s interesting to watch the faces of those who hear us talk about ending homelessness. Noses scrunch, heads tilt and sometimes eyes even roll.
Most people want to believe; they just can’t wrap their heads around how it could ever be realistic.
When they look at their fellow humans on the street, all they can see is the insurmountable symptoms of the situation–lack of income, mental illness, criminal background, substance abuse and so forth.
There are far too many problems weighing “those” people down for most imaginations to entertain the idea that someday people may not have to live on the street or in a shelter. So, they stop trying. They even accept that homelessness is just a part of everyday life–a social ill that falls in the category of “how it is” vs. “how it could be.”
For decades, homeless services even supported this idea. Shelters were built around survival of the fittest methodologies. If you did what you were supposed to do, followed the rules and pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, you’d earn your way back into housing. If you couldn’t follow directions, struggled with rules and were so overwhelmed by your circumstances that you didn’t know what you did with your boots in the first place, you’d be left to your own devices. Not only would you likely stay homeless, you’d be asked to leave the last safe place available to you in hopes that some time on the outside would help you learn your lesson and do better next time you had a “chance” to enter shelter.
Ancient shelter practices, such as these, accomplished two goals: 1. It housed the people most likely to house themselves and/or be sustainable. 2. It encouraged a stereotype that the most vulnerable with the highest barriers, who were least likely to house themselves, didn’t want or weren’t ready for housing. While the national conversation is changing and most shelters are moving into the new age of housing first methodologies, the stereotype remains alive and well. And it is the very thing that keeps people from believing in an end to homelessness today.
People just don’t think that everyone wants, deserves or has the capability to sustain housing. In reality, no one in their right mind wants to be homeless, and those who aren’t in their right mind are often so vulnerable that they deserve the extra effort, resources and most creative solutions we can find to eventually get them housed.
Believing in an end to homelessness, therefore, requires a different kind of thinking.
First, understand that everything you can define as wrong with a person experiencing homelessness is equally challenging to just as many, if not more, people who never face a housing crisis. Mental illness, criminal background, job loss, substance abuse, you name it; people manage to exist every day with all of those struggles and never become homeless. We can list symptoms of those experiencing homelessness all day long, but the diagnosis is far simpler–lack of housing and support network to sustain it.
Second, do not use lack of affordable housing as an excuse for not ending homelessness. There are 31,000 people living below the poverty level in the Fredericksburg region. Yet, within any one 24-hour period, only 217 people experience homelessness in the same five jurisdictions. Somehow, thousands of people are making it, despite a high cost housing market where wages aren’t necessarily matching up. The ones who are not making it have a whole lot of other barriers at play that can only be resolved through the reconstruction of a support network–much more than most landlords or developers can fix on their own. Besides, some people experiencing homelessness don’t even have money, so it really wouldn’t matter how much affordable housing a community offered, unless the units were being given away for free.
Third, repeat after me: the definition of homeless is a person who lacks a home. When someone moves out of a shelter or off of the street and into a home they are no longer homeless. It’s up to case managers and community supports to rebuild the support network and the income that will ultimately keep a person housed. But research is showing that 85% of those who are housed first remain stable in permanent housing, compared with 16 to 42% of their historic counterparts who were asked to address their symptoms before having a chance at housing.
This is the kind of thinking that Micah and its other local homeless services partners are implementing as we work together to end homelessness in our community. We are housing people first, supporting them in overcoming their barriers second and ultimately connecting them to the community support that will keep them out of homelessness long-term.
Can that strategy lead to an end to homelessness in our community?
If zero means that our system prevents homelessness whenever possible, yes.
If zero means that people are moved quickly out of homelessness and don’t stay on the street or in a shelter for months and years at a time, yes.
If zero means that people who have overcome their homelessness are adequately equipped with the skills and resources to avoid future instances of homelessness, we aren’t sure why anyone would think the answer to our end of homelessness question could be anything other than yes.
The end to homelessness, after all, is only as strong as the system available to make sure that a night without a home is rare, brief and non-recurrent.