Thursday, October 2, 2008

Putting a Face on Homelessness

I found this to be a thoughtful article about the homeless from a practical solutions perspective. With the crunch the United States economy is in, we can expect to see more homeless in our streets. Just a few hours ago; I saw a news report indicating a rise in “tent cities” is happening in the U.S…. Also see The Homeless in America.

Putting a Face on Homelessness
By Glenn Conn

Homelessness in America is not merely an issue of vital importance. It has escalated to the point of being a potential epidemic and is a problem that needs to be addressed on every level. According to the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients, there are anywhere from 1.58 million to 3.49 million homeless individuals in the United States, annually. Yet, in order to serve these people fully and in accordance to their needs, we must first perceive and treat them as individuals.

Bring to mind a stereotypical image of a homeless person. What do we see portrayed in media, on television, and from generation to generation? What we usually see is a dirty, unkempt, stinking alcoholic, either living in a cardboard box or hanging out on a street corner spare changing for booze money. Yet, in reality, the homeless come from all walks of life. There are those residing in shelters who have substance abuse problems, yes, but actually they represent the minority. What we also see in shelters and missions today are single mothers with children, persons with college degrees, families, and even teenagers in need of both immediate and long-term assistance. In fact, because of the present financial crunch affecting the middle class of America today, it has been stated that perhaps as many as half of all families living from week to week are only one paycheck away from being homeless.

In order to reduce the increasing numbers of individuals residing in shelters and missions, we need to begin providing more comprehensive care. Many homeless providers merely require or aid their residents obtain some type of minimum wage employment. This is usually done in order for the shelter to mark this person as having successively completed that portion of their stay and consequently the shelter or mission can then use this information in their statistics to obtain grants and other types of funding. The problem with this method is the obvious fact that it is nearly impossible to be self-supportive on such low wages, even in light of the proposed increases in the minimum wage law. As a result of these practices, we have continued to increase the 'revolving door syndrome' associated with caring for the homeless.

Instead, homeless providers could use their same methodology that is already in place to look at the full potential of each individual. By using a combination of vocational rehabilitation, education assessment, and skills assessment we could offer a more comprehensive service to our homeless population. Many shelters and social service agencies already furnish G.E.D. assistance to those who do not have a high school education. But what happens if a person has a high school diploma or equivalent and exhibits or communicates their desire to further their education? By offering more enhanced counseling, we could steer a person toward educational grants or other available funding which, in turn, might help elevate them out of a life of poverty and continued homelessness. And on the same token, through a vocational or other type of skills assessment, shelters could identify individuals who may already possess a particular talent or ability that might help them become more self-sufficient. This type of skills assessment could be instrumental toward a trade or other type of school, thus helping to bring about self-reliance instead of a life of revolving in and out of homeless shelters.

Mental health is an issue that has had major repercussions upon those who are trying to aid the homeless. Many mental health institutions have chosen to reduce residential care and as a result, these individuals have been treated as social fodder, ending up in homeless shelters. This is one of the major reasons that so many homeless providers are experiencing such financial difficulties due to overcrowding. This is a very sad state of affairs. Any person who is in need of professional psychological or psychiatric care and needs to be in residential treatment simply will not be able to receive this degree of help in most local or regional homeless shelters. Until we recognize the reality of this problem and relocate these individuals into care facilities that can truly help and treat them, we will continue to see an increase in the numbers of those who are homeless, desperate, and in need.

Whatever happens to the poor and disenfranchised is up to us as individuals. Augmenting our assistance to the homeless does not necessarily mean it will increase our costs. Through the use of creative counseling, qualified volunteers, and other resources we can decrease the swelling numbers of individuals in need of emergency housing, and minimize the revolving door syndrome so prevalent in today's culture and perhaps make a positive change in so many of these people's lives.