Homelessness Myth #8: One Size Fits All

Also published on The Huffington Post

Since the 1970s, as homelessness in the United States increased dramatically, some social service agencies created short-term homeless emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities to house homeless people. Some service providers emphasized the importance of finding jobs for their clients.  Their theory, “Jobs First,” was that once their homeless clients had jobs, they would be able to afford their own apartments and be housed permanently.

Over twenty years ago, Tanya Tull, president and CEO of Beyond Shelter and founder of Para Los Ninos, developed and implemented an alternative methodology to emergency shelters and transitional housing for the purpose of ending family homelessness that she coined, “Housing First” which:

• provides crisis intervention to address immediate family needs, while      simultaneously or soon thereafter assisting families to develop permanent housing and social service plans

• helps homeless families move into affordable rental housing in residential neighborhoods as quickly as possible, most often with their own lease agreements

• then provides six months to one year of individualized, home-based social services support “after the move” to help each family transition to stability.  (See, http://www.beyondshelter.org)

Similar to the housing first methodology is the “permanent supportive housing” approach  through which homeless people, regardless of whether they have families, can receive permanent housing with services to help prevent and end homelessness.

Together, the housing first methodology and the permanent supportive housing approach have now become widely accepted by some social service providers as “the way” to end homelessness.

But what about the 35% – 45% of the homeless population who have psychological problems? And what about the homeless people who suffer from physically debilitating problems?

I suggest that the first methodology for homeless people who suffer from mental illness and/or physically debilitating problems should be appropriate psychological and/or medical care and treatment.

Every mentally ill person, housed or unhoused, deserves appropriate care and treatment for their illness, even if that appropriate care and treatment means commitment in a mental institution.  Every physically disabled person, housed or unhoused, should receive appropriate care and treatment, even if that means long-term hospitalization.

I asked some people who are or were homeless how they felt about whether one methodology could be utilized as the best way to end homelessness.  Their responses follow.

Maurice:  “I believe that you know that it [the solution to homelessness] is multi-layered.”

Olivia:  “One size cannot fit all.  Many people are just coming out of violent situations, drug rehab, or prison.  [They are] not just jobless.

“Where to put them would be based upon the level and type of psychological problems they may have…

And prison does not train its inmates to behave appropriately for mixed-gender society.  Mental institutions with therapists and staff do.

“You must separate those with severe psychological problems from those without.  Otherwise, you create an environment that is psychologically, emotionally and physically dangerous to those who may be leaving stressful situations…

“[Some people] believe that healthy clients living in close quarters with those still in recovery from drugs, violence or prostitution will positively affect a change in the ill.  But, we’re not psychologists and it is merely putting new prey in the hands of predators recovering from such.”

Barbara R.:  “The concept of “one size fits all” is ludicrous, asinine and insane.  Try and take the dynamics, for example of women, children, men separately, whole families, and the new trans-gender population.  How can one remedy cure all the ailments?”

Melanie:  “The solution to the homeless issue is to view each individual within the homeless population as unique, and in so doing, properly address his/her situation in such a way that is in accordance with his/her vision of happiness.”

Pamela:  “The myth that one size fits all as a solution to homelessness is definitely not possible because the requirements to bring a person from homelessness into self-sufficiency is a process that inherently must be individualized.

“Individuals need a community network that is able to supply the needs of a wide variety of services that are available to bring them from the state of homelessness into self-sufficiency.”

Tim:  “Can’t get a phone call.   How can my needs be met?”

I believe that all social service agencies that are doing good things for homeless people are doing something great.

I further believe that we should continue, support and fully fund housing first and permanent supportive housing projects.

Finally, I believe that in order to help homeless people who have many different needs, we need simultaneous implementation of many kinds of approaches and methodologies, including the following three steps to ending homeless:

1.  Public toilets, showers and laundries

2.  Housing, transitional and permanent, with supportive services

3.  A self-sufficient village on an abandoned military base

• where homes and apartments would be available for families and individuals
• where a building would be available with services for mentally ill people
• where a building would be available with services for those people with dual diagnosis
• where a building would be available to house and provide for homeless orphans
• where light industry could provide employment for the residents
• nearby an established school district where the youth could attend classes
• run at first by a council of nonprofit agencies and then, as soon as practical, run by the         duly-elected representatives of the self-sufficient village.

Homelessness Myth #4: There’s Room In The Inn

Also published on The Huffington Post.

On December 8th, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that on the previous day, the County of San Diego, California experienced one of “the most powerful winter storms in several years…bringing damaging winds, record-setting rainfall and several inches of snow to the mountains.”

My homeless friend Maurice supplied me with the following video of the situation of homeless people in downtown San Diego and the efforts of Alpha Project president, Bob McElroy, to help homeless people cope with the challenging weather.  This video, as you will see, was filmed just outside the Emergency Winter Shelter, run by Alpha Project, which was filled to capacity.

Some background from the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless 2009 Point In Time Count:

1.  In the County of San Diego, there are a total of 7,892 homeless people of whom:

  • 4,014 homeless people are living on the streets
  • 965 homeless people are living in emergency shelters
  • 2,913 homeless people are living in transitional housing

2.  In the City of San Diego, there are a total of 4,338 homeless people of whom:

  • 1,868 homeless people are living on the streets
  • 656 homeless people are living in emergency shelters
  • 1,814 homeless people are living in transitional housing

Homelessness Myth #3: Unsheltered People Only Count At Night

Also published on The Huffington Post.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal (HUD) requires that every two years during the last seven days of January, Continuum of Care (CoC) systems (those agencies that HUD funds on a competitive basis) count the number of homeless people within their geographical areas.

HUD guidelines suggest that the best practice for counting homeless people is to count unsheltered homeless people on the same night as counting people staying in shelters or when the shelters are closed.  Thus, while the counts of homeless people living in shelters take place during the day, the counts for unsheltered homeless people generally take place from midnight until 4:00 a.m., or from very early in the morning, often beginning before 4:00 a.m.

In 2007, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the lead agency for Los Angeles CoC, counted 68,608 homeless people residing within the Los Angeles CoC.  Not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,094 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2007, the total count of homeless people in Los Angeles County was 73,702.

On October 28 of this year, LAHSA released its January 27-29, 2009 count of homeless people that found that 42,694 homeless people reside within the Los Angeles CoC. Again, not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,359 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2009, the homeless population in Los Angeles County was counted as 48,053.

While 48,053 homeless people is an extremely large number, representing misery for thousands of men, women and children, this number is surprising to some service providers because it represents an unexpected 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in 2007.

In its press release, “New Census Reveals Decline in Greater Los Angeles Homelessness,” LAHSA attributes this 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in Los Angeles County in 2009 to “progress in the City’s and County’s efforts at reducing homelessness.”

Of particular interest are the statistics that LAHSA quotes in its press release stating that:

[t]he decline in the numbers for Los Angeles appears consistent with similar national decreases [in the number of homeless people counted] seen in areas like: 

New York: 30% decrease
Indianapolis 22% decrease
Riverside County 22% decrease

 

I propose that counting all homeless people, whether sheltered or unsheltered, during the day would yield a more accurate number of the people who are homeless.

1. Finding unsheltered homeless people at night is problematic. In some cities, there is police activity to break up illegal public camping.  However, on those nights at the end of January every two years, enumerators look forward to finding encampments so that they can find homeless people to count.

It would appear that the police and the enumerators are working at cross-purposes.

2. Would you like it if a team of enumerators came to your home in the middle of the night?  Some homeless people know about the count process and may not want to be disturbed so perhaps they find more out-of-the-way places to stay on census nights.

3. Some unsheltered homeless people stay awake at night.  Why?  Because sleeping at night “outside” puts homeless people in a very vulnerable state.  They often sit in well-lit areas or on buses, or they walk.

The unsheltered homeless people who do try to sleep at night often look for quiet, private places so they are protected from prying eyes, possible attacks and the elements.

4. I suggest that the enumerators bring non-perishable canned and packaged food with can openers to these hungry, poor people.  This act of charity could make the counting experience something that homeless people might look forward to and for which they would make themselves more available.

5. Unsheltered homeless people can be more easily found during the day in public places, in food lines and at service providers’ locations.  Why not utilize the organizers and volunteers at these locations to help introduce the enumerators to their guests?

Finding unsheltered working homeless people can be accomplished by talking to the organizers, volunteers, service providers or friends who know these homeless people.

6. Concerned about double counting homeless people? Homeless people are knowable.  Prior to the official counting dates, a team could just go out, meet homeless people and bring much-needed canned or packaged food.  By knowing in advance many of the people they are counting, enumerators would know to avoid counting the same person twice.

Further, in the case of meeting a homeless person who enumerators have not previously met, the enumerators could simply ask the homeless person if he/she has been counted already.  Once a trust or friendship has been established between any enumerator and any homeless person, this information will be more readily forth coming.

7. It would be helpful if each team of enumerators were accompanied by a trained mental health professional.  Stress is a challenge for all of us and certainly homeless people experience a great deal of stress.  Thus, by their mere calming presence, these mental health professionals would be providing a valuable service.

It is important for many reasons, including justifying the funding of homelessness services, that homeless people be counted.  However, we must be as creative in our thinking about the ways to count them as homeless people are creative in the ways that they survive on the streets.

As fellow human beings, homeless people are entitled to our respect, need our help and deserve our compassion.

Homelessness Myth #2: “They’re All Bums!”

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Absolutes can be tricky because there is usually an exception that “proves” or breaks every rule.  We have often heard the expression, “Never say never!” We generally know in our hearts that in the world of human beings, no one is perfect, no rule remains unbroken and no expressions are absolute.

The same is true with homeless people. There are no absolutes. Just based on what we intuit about the world around us, we know that each homeless person is a unique person – just a housed person without the home.

Whether a person can be called a bum actually depends upon how, of course, we define the word, “bum.” However, anyone chooses to define that word, I think most of us would agree that children are not bums under any definition.

In my experience, I have found that approximately 25 percent of homeless people are children. Together, women and children make up close to 40 percent of homeless people and are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. They have not chosen homelessness as a life-style; rather, homelessness has been forced upon them.

Escaping battery is one reason why women become homeless. When women leave their batterers, they generally take their children with them. Battered women’s shelters are testaments to this experience. Not unlike homeless shelters generally, most of the battered women’s shelters are full.

Another reason women and children become homeless is the impact of a challenging economy upon single mothers. Since the first working mom sought employment, finding a job and arranging for childcare so she could go to work have been huge issues. In the past, however, some of these working moms had family that they could rely on to some extent for support.

Today, large distances separate many family members and extended family finances have dwindled due to a host of economic circumstances. Thus, poor mothers often find they are unable to get help from their already overstressed family support system.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 signed into law by President Obama on February 17, 2009, will hopefully help prevent more people from becoming homeless. On October 8th, LaDonna Pavetti, director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support that the ARRA  “prevented millions of Americans from falling into poverty and has helped some states to forgo significant cuts that would have weakened the safety net for very poor families with children.”

Part of ARRA, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) as administered through the States and their Continuums of Care may help homeless women and children become housed. Since applications for assistance are just now being made available to potential participants, the impact of the HPRP is yet to be felt.

The opinions that some housed people may have of homeless people may be understandable, but their opinions are uneducated. For example, some housed people may see homeless people sleeping in public during the day and conclude they are lazy.

In truth, many homeless people choose to sleep during the day because it is too dangerous for them to sleep at night because that is when they are most vulnerable.

Some time ago, I accompanied students from Crossroads High School in Santa Monica as they made a short film about homelessness in their city. I introduced them to my friend, “Charles,” who spoke to them very frankly about his experiences since he became homeless.

Charles shared that although he was over 6 feet tall and weighed over 230 pounds, he was afraid to sleep at night.

“Why?” asked the surprised students.

Charles was slightly embarrassed when he confessed that when he slept at night he was afraid someone would hurt him. Instead, he chose to sleep during the day and in well-trafficked areas because he felt that the constant flow of people would provide him with an additional measure of safety.

Charles asked the students if they had read the reports of some young people who had killed homeless people while they slept.

Bums or people protecting themselves? You decide.

Homelessness Myth #1: “Get a Job!”

Also published on The Huffington Post.

This post begins a series of articles about the myths surrounding homelessness. Myths are just widely held thoughts or beliefs that are not generally true. Possibly one of the most widely expressed myths is that homeless people would not be homeless except for the fact they don’t want to get a job.

First, many homeless people are employed while some even have two jobs. Usually, these people sleep under some kind of shelter. They may be living in a homeless shelter or transitional housing situation, on someone else’s couch or in someone’s garage. Since the foreclosure crisis, many families have formed “tent cities” from which they work.

Second, in order to get a job, people must be clean and they must wear clean clothing.   Even at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants employees are required to be clean. County, state and federal rules and regulations provide the standards by which fast-food restaurants must abide for the health and safety of their patrons.

Proper sanitation facilities are essential so that people and their clothing can be clean and meet the most basic qualification for a job–cleanliness. Without access to toilets, showers and laundry facilities, how are people to keep themselves and their clothing clean?

There are few public toilets, fewer public showers and even fewer public laundry facilities available to homeless people. Toilets and showers are available to students of community colleges, so some homeless people try to enroll in classes. Places like the YMCA have public toilets and showers, but day or membership fees are required that most homeless people cannot afford.

Some years ago, most of the public toilets available to homeless people were in fast-food restaurants or at gasoline service stations.

As the number of homeless people increased, the owners of fast-food restaurants began to lock their restroom doors and charge 10 or 25 cents per use. Of course, tokens to the restrooms were made available to restaurant patrons at the counter.

The restrooms at gasoline service stations were also closed to the public, with access to their toilets restricted through keys available only upon request by patrons. Today, a number of service stations have permanently closed their restrooms to the public by displaying “Out of Service” or “Out of Order” signs on their doors.

To be fair to the owners of fast-food restaurants and gasoline service stations, homeless people sometimes overuse restroom facilities by “bathing” in the sinks, which could potentially damage the plumbing. Other times, some homeless people may spend too long in the restrooms, thereby depriving other patrons the use of the facilities within a reasonable period of time. Further, if people have not had access to a shower or laundry facilities for a time, an odor can be detrimental to business.

How can homeless people clean themselves and their clothing? One answer to this question was the concept of “Housing First,” first popularized by Tanya Tull, founder of Para Los Ninos and Beyond Shelter.  This concept, which proposes housing creation for homeless people must come before or at least in tandem with job creation, has now been popularly accepted.

Unfortunately, sufficient housing for homeless people has been slow in developing and most, if not all of the shelters are full with long waiting lists for future available living space.

Offering public toilets and public showers equipped with available laundry facilities is another answer. Because there is an entire industry involved in the design, construction and rental of portable lavatories and showers, municipalities could quickly make these available to homeless people. Perhaps these public restrooms and showers could be situated near city-owned or operated laundry facilities.

Of course, municipalities could just maintain their existing public toilets and showers on a twenty-four hour a day basis, seven days a week, for their homeless residents.

Cities could also contract with existing homeless shelters to provide public toilets, showers and even laundry facilities to non-resident homeless people.

Third, not every person–housed or homeless–is capable of working. For example, in my experience, 35% of homeless people have problems with mental illness. Some of this mental illness is mild and some is totally debilitating.

To include housed or unhoused mentally ill people within the workforce requires mental health assistance. Certainly, there are mental health programs available for people regardless of their housing situation. However, unhoused people have the additional challenge of finding and pursuing mental health assistance while they have no permanent residence. I think most of us can agree this challenge could be overwhelming for many homeless people.

“Get a job!” is an easy expression to say. However, for some homeless people, getting a job is an impossible dream.