WARNING: This Article on Homelessness Might Offend You

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Seattle City Councilman says ‘Housing First’ is Key to Solving Homelessness. But Is That the Answer?

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4 Questions That Will Challenge Your Beliefs about the Homeless Crisis

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It’s ” a common argument – if we just get homeless people into housing, then we’re solving homelessness. And on a surface level, it makes sense. Homeless means “without a home.” So give them a home, and they’re no longer homeless.
If only it were that simple.
Councilman Tim Burgess wrote a guest column in the Seattle Times in August, 2016, and he argued for a reworking of how we fund the various services that try to help homeless people in Seattle and King County.

He made a number of good points – especially this question:

“Are we investing our resources wisely to achieve the best possible results?”

We agree with his answer to his own question. Not just Seattle, but most of the country is failing to use their resources wisely to truly help people trapped in homelessness.
The problem is – some of Burgess’ own solutions still miss the mark. He says “housing first” should be our top priority, as quickly as possible. Again, this sounds reasonable. But this is actually just another way to spend a ton of money and not see significant change.
At Babysteps Ministry, here’s the question we ask every day with regard to the homeless people we talk with:
What does it really take to get someone off the streets – permanently?
Consider just this partial list of services and giveaways currently available to homeless people:
  • Free emergency shelters
  • Affordable housing
  • Rent assistance
  • Free counseling, for addiction and other struggles
  • Drug rehab
  • Free legal assistance
  • Free bus tickets
  • Free cell phone service
  • Free meals
  • Free water
  • Free blankets
  • Free clothes, shoes, socks, jackets, underwear, pants, and more – often for the same people over and over again
These things are given away on a daily basis to the more than 10,000 homeless people currently living on the streets of Seattle. And yet, there are more homeless people each year.  That should bother you.
Ask yourself:
If I were given all those things for free, what would my life be like?
You might start thinking of how much money you could save, or the new house or car you could buy, or something you’ve been wanting to do but couldn’t afford. That list covers the majority of our lifetime expenses, including the big ones! Except perhaps for college education.
So, we must admit that something is off here, and ask one final question: If homeless people are being given such an astonishing amount of free goods and services – why do they stay homeless?
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Why do they stay homeless?

Here’s where we get a little offensive. They stay homeless because they’re not ready for a home.
The Soloist portrays homeless man receiving a free homeA superb movie that dramatizes this perfectly is called The Soloist, starring Jamie Fox and Robert Downey Jr. If you’ve never seen this film, and believe ‘housing first’ is the answer, we challenge you to go watch it. It’s a true story.
Downey plays a reporter who encounters a homeless man (Fox), who is also a musical virtuoso. Downey can’t stand the fact this supremely talented man is on the streets, so he starts doing whatever he can to help the guy, including renting him an apartment for free. How Fox’s character handles this free home – and Downey’s friendship, at first – offers a rare glimpse into the real challenges to truly helping many of the people who are homeless.
For many of them, just giving them homes ultimately solves nothing. If this weren’t true, then why do the ‘one night count’ numbers keep increasing, in spite of all the services and money we’re spending? Clearly – what we’re doing now is not working. And the reason it’s not working isn’t because we aren’t prioritizing “housing first.”
The reason is because the causes of persistent homelessness are far more complicated than a key and a one-bedroom apartment will be able to fix.
Yes – some people are ready to handle a home. And Burgess is correct about this part. Some people end up in homelessness, but are determined not to stay there, and will take advantage of whatever services they can find to get back on their feet. For people like that, many of Burgess’ solutions will work.
But it’s the chronically homeless. The truly destitute. The ones who have lost hope, who are used to being overlooked and ignored. The ones with criminal records and no job skills. These are the people who simply aren’t ready for a home. You give them one, and they will trash it.
But they don’t trash it out of malice or disrespect in every instance. In most cases, it’s simply too much responsibility.

Picture this:

Suppose there’s a person who’s lived for ten years on the street. Ten years. A long time. He gotten free meals, free clothes, and access to free emergency shelters the whole time. Aid and nonprofit workers he visits now and then do everything for him. They make appointments for him. Fill out paperwork he needs. They do everything – even including dialing his phone and handing it back to him to call a particular service.
And now – suddenly – he’s given a whole apartment all to himself.
He has to clean and use his own bathroom.
He has to keep up on his monthly expenses.
He has to buy his own food.
He has to cook his own food.
He has to answer his mail.
He has to make his own appointments.
We can on forever. The point is – living your own life, even without a job, entails a ton of little minor tasks and responsibilities that YOU don’t even think about. You just do them. Just ask a retired person.
But for someone who’s been trained by the system to have things done for him, for years, he simply cannot be expected to suddenly handle the basic responsibilities that come with having his own place.
And that’s why ‘housing first’ won’t solve homelessness for many people on the streets. They need someone to walk with them. To come alongside them and re-empower them, one step at a time. They need help re-entering life.
They need someone, like Downey’s character ultimately discovers, to be a true friend.
Homelessness can ultimately be boiled down to loneliness and extended isolation, combined with the great variety of hard circumstances that people face. With no one walking alongside them, they detach from human interactions and institutions, and end up on the street alone.
Babysteps Ministry believes in providing this kind of friendship. It’s slower than a huge room full of free meals and blankets. It’s less flashy than huge new affordable housing complexes. It won’t get funded by any massive property tax levies.
But it works – and for the chronically homeless especially – it’s the only thing that really works. It’s helping homeless people take one step at a time, when they really want to take it, to dig a little bit higher out of the hole they’ve fallen into.
Do you want to solve homelessness? It’s not housing first. It’s people first.

Give to Babysteps, and put people first

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2 Responses to "WARNING: This Article on Homelessness Might Offend You"

  1. pete boyd Posted on September 13, 2016 at 1:40 pm

    this is so true , as a former Seattle parks worker it is so heart breaking to see the encampments the same people the mentally ill these people with heavy hearts who are lost.

    • babystepsministry Posted on September 20, 2016 at 9:08 pm

      Yes – It’s important to assess what a person is capable of maintaining before throwing big responsibilities at them. Sometimes a free home isn’t the best gift we can give because it’s just too much to handle.

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