By John Lawrence
You kibitz with the homeless in your campaign ads. Now that you’re Mayor Kevin Faulconer, are you really going to do anything about it? Or are you going to continue to procrastinate. Other cities are ending homelessness from Phoenix to Salt Lake City to Nashville.
You have the model to follow. It’s a no-brainer. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just follow their successful models. You don’t have to continue to study the problem in order to address it ten years from now.
These cities and others have decided that treatment and supportive services should not be conditions or precursors to permanent housing. Instead, the very ability to address personal mental health goals, beat addiction and gain stable employment stems from the safety and stability that comes from having a permanent home. This approach is called Housing First.
By moving people directly into permanent housing and then continuing to work to address their health, mental health and employment needs, thousands of chronically homeless people have been moved off the streets for good – many of whom were homeless veterans. The idea is to provide the homeless with homes right away and then address other problems as needed.
This approach was invented and pioneered by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, the founder of Pathways to Housing, in New York City in the late 1990s and soon adopted by the federal government and many state, local and non-profit agencies. In contrast to less effective, more traditional models, housing first does not force homeless people to complete or comply with treatment, mental health care, employment training or other services in order to access and maintain permanent housing. Instead, it rests on the evidence-based view that stable housing puts people in a better position to benefit voluntarily from these services over time.
The transformation of the appearance of some of the formerly homeless once they are housed is simply miraculous, and most of them make the transition successfully providing some additional social services like drug and psychological counselling are provided.
The homeless are just like you and me except that they have no support system. They have run out of friends’ couches to sleep on, run out of friends and, in some cases, never even had any friends to begin with. But as the Good Book says: “There but for the Grace of God go I.” They need society to be their support system. No matter how many mistakes they’ve made in life, they don’t deserve to be sleeping on the streets.
Just as the father accepted the Prodigal Son with open arms, we as those who have been much luckier despite our many screw-ups need to accept them back into the human family. A home is the first step in turning their lives around, and it has been demonstrated in many cases to have brought stability into their lives while at the same time lowering taxpayer burdens.
Unrecognizable–that’s how homeless advocate Becky Kanis described the transformation of hundreds of thousands of homeless people once they are given a home.
“There is something that’s really dehumanizing about living on the streets in so many ways,” Community Solutions’ Kanis told 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper. “And then, really, in a matter of days, from having housing, the physical transformation is almost immediate and they’re unrecognizable from their former selves.”
Take Donald Shelton for example. He was homeless for 15 years. Much of that time was spent in front of Union Station in Washington, DC, where he was often referred to as “The General.” In August 2010, Donald was placed in an apartment with his cat, Crystal. When asked what housing means to him, Donald said, “You have your privacy and it’s yours.”
“It really changes your perception of the problem of homelessness and the people who end up being homeless,” said Cooper. He took the lesson home to New York City, where a homeless man panhandles and camps outside Cooper’s front door.
“Before the story, it really annoyed me,” says Cooper “I just ignored him. I just pretended he wasn’t there. And after the story, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. This is my issue. Me pretending not to see this person is insane and offensive.’”
After the assignment, Cooper decided to approach the homeless man, ask his name, and engage him in conversation. Now, he regularly greets the man and talks with him.
“Anytime you stop and talk to somebody and you learn about them, you start to walk in their shoes a little bit and you see things through a different lens,” said Cooper.
The Housing First approach has also been shown to be beneficial to taxpayers as the cost of providing housing and social services has been found to be cheaper than multiple visits to the emergency room and other costs of dealing with the homeless on the streets. As a result, they make less frequent use of expensive, publicly funded services like emergency rooms, shelters and jails.
If a homeless person receives social security or disability income they must pay 30% of their income towards their housing in the 100,000 homes program. Some landlords and other local philanthropists have offered 1% of their units free to the homeless in the effort to get them off the streets. Some cities are matching up their millionaires with their homeless and asking the millionaires to provide support for a few units.
For instance, Nashville with the help of its Partners, Sponsors and Allies is doing the following:
The How’s Nashville campaign is driven by community partners who assist vulnerable and chronically homeless people with permanent supportive housing. Our goal is to move people who are at risk of dying in the streets into apartments. Once housed, How’s Nashville partners are linking people with case management – a social worker who connects a resident with support services and follows up with the resident on a regular basis. Our ultimate goal is to support people so they can successfully remain in housing.
There is also the additional good feelings generated by knowing that you live in a city that truly provides for “the least of these our brethren.” Stepping out onto the sidewalk knowing that you won’t have to stumble over people sleeping on the street, navigate a row of homeless tents and carts or step in feces upgrades the image of a city beyond measure.
Housing First looks for the most disadvantaged homeless and takes them off the streets first so they won’t die there. This is also the most humane approach servicing the needs of “the least of these.”
So how about it, Mayor-Elect Faulconer? Were your campaign ads featuring the homeless only so much balderdash? Or are you willing to follow up your purported concern for the homeless by putting your energy and efforts into really doing something about it as so many other cities have done and are doing, among them Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Nashville, Houston, Los Angeles and many others?
Talk is cheap. Campaign ads are cheap. Let’s see some commitment and some action. It speaks louder than words.
See a list of 100,000 Homes sponsors and partners here.