Homeless Services: We Can Do Better

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Homeless reading on the sidewalk No homeless person ever said “Please place me in one room with a hundred other people. Please give me a cot or a mat for the floor to sleep on. Please only have one bathroom with two toilets and two shower stalls for all of us.  Then please kick us out everyday, even in freezing cold weather – and that will cure my drug addiction and mental illness.” But that is exactly how homeless services treats people. For the most part, we are warehousing people and simply maintaining homelessness – not ending homelessness!

I really have never understood the shelter model of kicking homeless people out during the day. Homeless services will tell you it’s to motivate people to better their life and look for work, but the real truth is – it’s about money. When people are awake it costs money for more staff to take care of them, electric bill and utilities, and things like food and toilet paper.  The people who are going to actually go and better their lives will do so even without being forced outside. The others, and what is a vast majority, just find another place – a park, their car, a library, or fast food to hang out in and kill time. The model of kicking people out during the day does little to improve their chances of getting out of homelessness. In fact, I would say is actually hurts their chances.

A far better solution is to have life skills classes during the day to actually help people and motivate them. See, it’s not that these people are bad, it’s they have been conditioned by years of hurt and being told no, and they either have so low self- esteem they don’t care, or they really have never been given the skills and are scared to move forward.  Seriously, if a shelter wants to see their housing placement numbers go up assign a “navigator” to each homeless person to help them during the day. Ya, I get money is an issue, but a volunteer system of navigators can be used to make this happen with very little increase in cost.  Kicking people out during the day, including mothers with young children, does not help and actually causes more harm than good!

Now imagine you’re a homeless person and you’ve found a park to live in that you feel safe enough at night to sleep. You hear through the grapevine, or through outreach workers, that a homeless agency may be able to help. You panhandle the money to catch a bus to travel to this agency. You then sit in the office for anywhere from four to six hours to see a case worker so the agency can collect your data. Think sitting in a dentist office for four hours, it’s far from a good experience.  After you see the case worker, if you’re lucky, you get placed on a waiting list. If you’re really lucky they’ll give you bus tickets to get back to the park. Otherwise, you have to panhandle to get back to where you feel safe.  You do all this just to have to get up and do it again- and again- and again! Any normal person would not put up with this, but this is exactly how we treat homeless people!

Please don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for shelters in fighting homelessness, but most offer horrible experiences for people. I believe, as we continue to look at models like Housing First, shelters will play a valuable role when people hit homelessness temporarily or in transition while waiting for  housing to open up.  But if we are going to have any impact ending homelessness, we need to start treating our homeless friends like real customers and provide the best experience possible.  If your outreach team is having trouble getting people to come in for an intake you may want to look at your intake process to see what “road blocks” to services are there.

This short video from @home features Nan Roman, Nan Roman, President of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Loyd Pendleton, Director of Homeless Task Force at State of Utah, talks about valuing the people we serve for better results ending homelessness.

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