Can We Really End Homelessness?
for November 4, 2020
Can We Really End Homelessness?
I sit with this question every day.
I spent the last few years helping lead a homeless center. I work daily with folks who live on the streets or camp in the woods. With the help of a $25,000 grant from the Legacy Collective, our group has just started construction of New Beginnings – a bridge housing community for people experiencing long-term homelessness in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I am humbled and grateful that you would pool your resources to invest in making a new beginning for your neighbors here and in communities around the country.
I’ve thought about the question I posed in my title for a long time and I’ve come up with a short version of my answer I’d like to share with you:
We need programs that prioritize the most vulnerable instead of passing them over.
We need effective social action to address homelessness and poverty.
No one should have to prove they are “easy to deal with” in order to access life-saving shelter or housing. It’s estimated that living outside takes 20 years off a person’s life. But too often programs in the homeless care system inadvertently hold support at arm’s reach from people in dire straits. We imply that some people seeking services need to go change their lives before we will help them. I refer to this as a “worthiness narrative” where instead of redesigning our programs to accommodate the most vulnerable, we accept narratives which label those people “unworthy” or “not ready” so we can shift the failure to them instead of owning it ourselves.
I’ll put this in practical terms for building New Beginnings: we are going to prioritize including people who experience chronic homelessness which means our program must be prepared to accommodate people who may enter with untreated mental health issues, may use drugs or alcohol in unhealthy ways, may depend on a pet sleeping beside them each night, may engage in sex work, or may behave in socially disruptive ways. We don’t want to screen out people in these circumstances we want to screen them in.
People whose lives have chronic patterns of homelessness (it’s about 87,000 people in the United States) often have a disabling health condition and have struggled with maintaining housing for years and years. They are much less likely to access emergency shelters but instead they sleep in tents, under bridges, in cars, or in abandoned buildings. New Beginnings bridge housing will offer these individuals a safe living environment combined with personalized support services in order to help them re-gain appropriate housing. Our facility will allow for more privacy (individual sleeping cabins) and encourage a sense of safety (fenced perimeter and onsite personnel). The shared facilities building will have a kitchen and showers and laundromat so people can be and feel their best. We’ve made sure we can accommodate pets. We will exercise flexibility when someone is working on their housing goals and needs extra time to achieve them. The people staying at New Beginnings will be included in how the community operates at every level. We accept the challenge to make a space that can welcome people regardless of what issues they’re dealing with.
As we reach for high standards in the programs which people use to exit homelessness, we also need to reach for higher standards in our society so we can make poverty and homelessness a thing of the past. Have you ever asked “Why are so many people homeless today? Why are so many people poor?” Individual acts of compassion can’t address the underlying issues that create pervasive poverty and rising homelessness in our communities. A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. perfectly summarizes the nature of true compassion:
‘True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. [True compassion] comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…and say, “This is not just.”
This is not just. True compassion leads us to fight for justice in our communities– to “restructure the edifice” that produces poverty and homelessness. New Beginnings’ bridge housing project is an essential first step to take but we seek to integrate our work into the wider work of creating a society that is just and humane for all. If we can do that with integrity, then yes, we really can end homelessness and much more.
Working alongside you, Solomon (New Beginnings)