(Photo by Flickr user scribbletaylor, used under a Creative Commons license)
This is part of "Homelessness" month of the Generocity Editorial Calendar. Find the series here.
People who live and work in cities see homelessness every day. That level of prevalence makes it easy for the general public to either ignore the fact that it is an intractable problem or assume that the problem is limited to the experiences we’ve become most familiar with.
If you live in a city, you’ve been approached by panhandlers. You’ve seen men and women sleeping in nooks. You’ve ignored people begging outside a convenience store.
That surface-level exposure can understandably lead the general public to develop misconceptions about the issue. So, we asked a few service providers to clear things up:
- Owen Camuso (Program Manager, Resources for Human Development, Inc.)
- John Ungar (Executive Director, Dignity Housing)
- Joe Willard (Vice President of Policy, People’s Emergency Center)
- Broderick Green (Peer Support Specialist, Depaul USA)
1. Homelessness is not limited to the people you see on the street.
If you ask 100 people what homelessness looks like, said Willard, the vast majority will give you the same stereotypical image of a single adult, typically male, with a dirty, weather-beaten face.
“The public has no conception that there are babies and young children that are homeless,” said the renowned policy pro. “In Philadelphia, there are more than 2,000 kids ages zero to 5 who end up in a shelter every year. That includes 500 babies.”
The general public does not customarily see families on the street. There are subpopulations of homeless individuals, said RHD’s Camuso. The problem exists on a spectrum — arguably, several.
More than 2,000 children end up in a shelter every year.
“Many people think that people who are homeless are lazy or just want to use drugs and alcohol. I won’t hide the fact that there is a high rate of individuals who have mental health and substance abuse issues, and this population tends to be the hardest subpopulation to reach, and the most visible on the streets,” he said. “However, there are individuals who have had family conflicts, job loss or a disaster happen to their home.”
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Ungar said Dignity Housing works with a lot of domestic violence victims.
“People often don’t think about domestic violence in the context of homelessness. A lot of the people who stay with us are single mothers fleeing domestic violence who are often cut off from their support system,” he said. “It’s the nature of an abusive relationship. They don’t have the supports the rest of us have.”
Regardless of what we see on the street, there are varying degrees of homelessness. The general public has the most exposure to those who suffer from chronic and episodic homelessness — people who have been spent elongated periods of time on the street and those who have repeatedly fallen in and out of homelessness, respectively.
But there’s also situational homelessness. Ever have to crash on a friend’s couch for a period of time? You’ve experienced homelessness. Ever need to sleep in your car for a while? You’ve experienced homelessness.
2. Housing alone will not solve homelessness.
For all its categories, causes and subpopulations, all homeless individuals need housing. That’s why the federal government has adopted a “housing first” perspective to funding. But many providers take issue with that: Housing is a requirement, but rehabilitation cannot happen without services.
“Housing first is a philosophy. It will work for some people,” said Willard. “The idea is that housing is a foundational need for anybody to attain before they can attain some other types of needs to be met, such as employment needs or educational needs.”
Green, who experienced homelessness himself before becoming a staffer at the nonprofit that rehabilitated him, also feels the public misunderstands the need for services.
Nonprofits providing housing and services to homeless populations are increasingly reliant on private sector funding from individuals, corporations and foundations.
“I feel that the public has the misunderstanding that the services for the homeless are a waste of taxpayers dollars,” he said. “They don’t think that some people actually do benefit from these resources and they become productive members of society.”
But here’s the reality: Nonprofits providing housing and services to homeless populations are increasingly reliant on private sector funding from individuals, corporations and foundations. While there’s a mix of public money coming in from local, state and federal agencies, said Willard, those funds have remained somewhat stagnant.
“The general fund portion of the city’s homelessness budget has been pretty much static over the last eight to 10 years,” he said. “The city contracts have been the same for the past 10 years, and state [funds] have been the same since [Pa. Governor Tom] Corbett.”
Even so, housing alone will not bring people out of poverty, said Camuso.
“Housing is not the only resource that is needed to solve homelessness, and the homeless system might not be the only system that is responsible for homelessness.”
Unlike housing, not all homeless individuals require universal treatment. Because there are so many subpopulations, said Camuso, treatment plans and required services vary on a person-by-person level.
3. Treatment varies from individual to individual.
Providers are working to help homeless individuals become productive members of society again, and the variation of folks who come through the homelessness system can make deploying services a bit complicated. It’s not just about food, water and shelter.
For example, said Camuso, someone who is working a low-wage job might need strict budgeting skills and not require behavioral health treatment. Some have trouble holding down a job because of a lack of stability and the collateral damages of their individual situation.
Homeless services aren't just about food, water and shelter. It's about individual treatment.
“Many of our clients have struggled to find employment. If they do find it, especially because they’re single mothers, it’s hard to keep,” said Ungar, adding that many single mothers are called into their child’s school due to behavioral issues in class, which can cause them to miss work.
“The truth is that people become homeless for many different reasons, such as a family member passing away, someone loses their job or someone gets a divorce and can’t maintain housing on their own,” said Green. “Some guys are released from prison after many years and come home to nowhere to live. Not all homeless are homeless because they want to be homeless.”
Not all homeless people are lazy. That’s just not the case, said Ungar.
“We’re providing services, but the people themselves have to do the work,” he said. “It’s not a handout.”
Above all, service providers stress one thing: Homeless individuals are not the “other.” Nor is any person above experiencing homelessness.
“It’s an economic hardship that can happen to anyone,” said Ungar.-30-
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