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Homelessness is not just about shelter

Armstrong Williams | 7/27/2017, 10:37 a.m.
I believe the number of homeless veterans is approximately 30,000. An important point to make is homelessness is not just ...
Homeless In NYC JM Suarez photo

I believe the number of homeless veterans is approximately 30,000. An important point to make is homelessness is not just about shelter. It’s about health care and public safety and education and job training. The government needs to break down the silos that make it more difficult to help the local organizations that are trying to address these myriad problems. We need to solve the problem, not just manage it. 

The most recent statistics I’ve seen confirm that on any given day in America, 600,000 of our people are homeless. The composition of that population changes every day as some transition out of homelessness. For many it’s a transitional crisis. For others the problem is both chronic and acute. Homelessness exists in virtually every city in America, as well as in suburbia and rural areas. It affects rich cities and poor cities. In New York City, the financial capital of the world and the largest and richest city in America, there will be more homeless children on this day than can fill Madison Square Garden.

It would be incorrect to think that there is a single reason why so many Americans become homeless. Some find themselves on the street because they lost their jobs, became ill or just couldn’t keep up with their bills. Many people who are homeless in fact have a job. It might be part time or it might simply pay minimum wage, making it impossible to pay market rent. Others have complex problems: mental depression, drug or alcohol addiction or a criminal record that makes them effectively unemployable. In many situations, the waitlist for a subsidized apartment is so long, the authorities close it, cutting off that avenue of relief. Some people prefer the streets to shelters or other temporary and sometimes unsafe options.

So what should we do? The first thing to remember is that the reasons for homelessness are varied and complex. Trying to solve these very personal problems from Washington, hundreds or even thousands of miles away, doesn’t work. Local providers on the ground need the flexibility to be innovative and to respond quickly. The federal government can provide the funding, but it needs to get out of the way and allow the local experts to do their job. And although financial accountability is important, too often Obama era rules and regulations put a straitjacket on the community folks who know best and forced them to spend unjustified amounts of time, filling out forms and responding to new rules and regulations. 

The second piece of the puzzle involves distinguishing between those people who are temporarily homeless, because of an event for example, and those that are chronically homeless. Those who are on the streets for years need a permanent home with supportive services that allows them to manage their lives in a secure and stable manner. This population is also the costliest. They are the most likely to use a hospital emergency room as their health clinic, most likely to neglect or have no access to preventive health care, most likely to put a strain on the criminal justice system and most likely to impose social and economic costs. These individuals are who we should prioritize, for both humane and economic reasons. We should prioritize women with children because this population is particularly vulnerable, and we should try to avoid cycles of homelessness. And we must also prioritize homeless veterans because we owe an incalculable debt to those who put their lives at risk to protect our freedoms.