Service Providers, Unite!

Also published on The Huffington Post.

It seems that every service provider has a solution to homelessness.  And guess what, it’s their own program!  That’s fine with me, except service providers generally do not play well with other service providers.  They generally don’t share their programs, they generally don’t share their ideas and they generally don’t share their praise of other programs.  It’s this sharing that, in my opinion, is necessary to arrive at working solutions to the issue of homelessness.

Who are service providers? Municipal governments generally consider service providers to be government agencies, nonprofit corporations and for-profit corporations that provide shelter, food, clothing and necessary items to people in need.  Sometimes these services are free and sometimes these services have a price tag for poor and homeless people.

Municipal governments do not generally consider the individuals and groups who just go out and directly serve those in need in public as service providers.  These individuals and groups are the Good Samaritans who are spoken of and encouraged by every religious and spiritual organization and/or by their own conscience.  I call them, non-government service providers (NGSP).

Unfortunately, municipal governments do not generally consider NGSPs to be “in the continuum of care” because NGSPs are independent of government control, funding and licensing. Municipal governments often foster a “we” and “they” mentality between the government and the NGSPs by passing constitutionally questionable laws, such as requiring a permit for legal NGSP efforts, in an effort to control or end the activities of the NGSPs.

What all service providers, including the NGSPs, do is keep very busy with their own programs.  Fundraising alone is a full time job.  Nevermind running the program and actually helping people in need.

Their time is full, more than filled with everything that they need to handle to get their program running.  There is no time left for communicating with or meeting with other service providers.  So, service providers end up being insulated in their own extremely busy worlds away from the possibly helpful experience of sharing with other similarly situated service providers.

What concerns me most about this business-imposed isolationism among service providers is that service providers tend to criticize solutions to homelessness proposed by service providers other than themselves.  It happens all of the time.

Recently, I was discussing possible solutions to homelessness with a noted service provider who actually runs two homeless programs.  She stated to me that she was against any program through which homeless people were segregated from society, as in a self-sufficient village.  She only favors solutions to homelessness that mirror her own program, that is helping homeless people get vouchers and funds so that they can rent apartments in the midst of the city.

Her solution to homelessness is wonderful. Of course, some homeless people can be helped through this program, but only as long as apartments, vouchers and funds are available.  This service provider admitted that she could not help all of the homeless people coming to her for assistance because of limited available apartments, insufficient number of vouchers for rent and rising rents in existing apartments.

Another service provider recently commented to the press that no one should give water and food to people living outside because homeless people who received these handouts were then not motivated to get services from service providers. What he meant was that once they had some water and food, homeless people would not be motivated to seek services from his program.

But, some of the services in this service provider’s program have five-week waiting periods.  What are homeless people supposed to eat and drink during the five weeks they are waiting for his program’s services?

Let’s end this bickering.  Any service provider doing something good for those in need is really doing something great!  Here are three things that may be helpful for service providers to consider.

1.  The charitable giving of food and water by NGSPs is a band-aid approach to ending homelessness.  However, when we have a cut, a band-aid is the appropriate method of protecting our cut from further damage, infection. Food and water are necessary to life.  The goal here is to keep people alive for the day, a noble goal to be sure.

2.  When NGSPs give food and water to homeless people, this generosity is usually limited to once or twice a year or, at best, once a week.  Does anyone actually believe that homeless people can live on sporadic acts of generosity?  It is not logical to expect homeless people to avoid any additional services just because they occasionally receive food and water from another source.  When in need, people seek out all available services.

3.  Why criticize other programs be they government, corporate or NGSP programs?  The issue of homelessness has many sub-issues, including emergency assistance to homeless people, short and long-term housing solutions and employment opportunities. No one program that I know of provides all of the services needed by homeless people.

The real solution to homelessness is to work together.  Cooperation in goodwill is love in action.  Let’s do it!


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