The man laid on his side, where one could see his hollow, sunken eyes, and matted, greyish-black hair that failed to completely cover his scalp. His beard was shaggy and uneven, speckled with sporadic, discolored patches. His eyes had cast out creases so far as to rival a murder of crows, as the bags under his eyes looked as though they were slowly trying to encapsulate his face.
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His clothes were dirty, with chaotic tears throughout it. In the congested city, as the skyscrapers grasped at the very clouds above them, and cars raced by, here laid a man, destitute and alone. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people have walked past him today. A few paused by him and whispered platitudes of strength and kindness to him, while they gave him some spare change or maybe some food. These infinitesimal moments may be the most amount of positive human contact that he received today, but they don’t compare to the unremitting apathy that he regularly receives from most of society.
According to a 2017 assessment conducted by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that man is only one of over 550,000 homeless persons who dot the various cities and towns of America (US Dept. of HUD page 1). Generally speaking, the homeless population can be categorized into 3 separate groups: Transitional, Episodic and Chronic. Transitional typically refers to persons who suffered from an unexpected emergency that may have forced them into homelessness. Episodic refers to individuals who are in and out of homelessness. More often than not, these individuals tend to have behavioral problems that need to be addressed. Finally, chronically homelessness refers to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years (US Dept. of HUD page 2).
While many people may end up homeless due to drugs or familial problems, there are quite a few who may have found themselves homeless through no fault of their own. They may have found themselves in this lamentable situation as a result of mental illness, lack of sufficient permanent housing and/or affordable housing, or even a lack of shelters with minimal barriers to entry. In fact, according to Adam Rideau’s research, many homeless people will cite just how sudden their fall into homelessness came. This information can lead to one wanting to understand the cause of homelessness, as well as the ways to reduce its occurrence, while simultaneously ensuring its reduction for future generations.
All the research states that there is no singular cause for homelessness, but instead a wide variety of causes and traps that can ensnare even the most prudent of civilians and cast them down into the abyss of homelessness. Unsurprisingly, research by Prescilla D’Souza shows that homelessness is often interwoven with poverty, unemployment and inequality (page 36). This can be exacerbated by the exclusion of the homeless population from most financial services. Even if they wanted to open a bank account, in many cases they would not be able to do it, as they do not have permanent addresses and sometimes, not even a proof of identity. Without safety and security, most of them would choose not to save what little money they have (D’Souza page 32).
Researchers have also found that most people who find themselves suddenly evicted, without a job, or fleeing an abusive partner tend not to have anywhere to live. In this case, they’d often choose to use the services of a shelter, but many emergency homeless shelters are perpetually full. Even those with beds to spare may enforce rules that exclude families, LGBTQ youth, and people with pets (Mead and Rankin par 6). Eric Garcetti, the current mayor of Los Angeles, stated in an interview that failed policies to combat homelessness, cheaper opioids and insufficient support for ex-convicts are all factors that contribute to homelessness (Nazar 00:08:53 00:09:11). It’s safe to assume that the interactions of all these factors contribute to making the causes of homelessness a complicated web of issues that need to be deftly handled by cities and their residents. Regrettably, some cities decided to implement severe, punitive tactics to deal with the homeless situation.
Unfortunately, criminalizing homelessness is a growing trend in America, where local laws that ban activities such as sleeping in vehicles, camping in public and panhandling have increased between 2006 and 2016. In fact, statistics from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty state that in the United States of America, citations for panhandling has risen by 42%, camping in public had risen 69%, sitting or lying down in public by 52%, and sleeping in one’s vehicle by an astounding 143% (Housing Not Handcuff pages 10-11). Punitive methods typically seek to criminalize basic human behaviors that one does in public as a result of their situation, essentially persecuting homeless men, women and children for simply being homeless. These tactics are a response to public frustration of homelessness, but instead of helping and motivating the homeless, it only seeks to hurt and hide them, and is even counterproductive to combatting homelessness.
Critics say that the homeless are just forced to move, and in the words of Andrew Butler, the environment creates a whack-a-mole dynamic whereby homeless are either forced to move somewhere else or end up in jail (00:03:01 00:03:08). This tactic can create another barrier for a homeless person to escape from their situation, by forcing them into jail, thus granting them a criminal record. The criminal record becomes an additional barrier, not just to obtaining jobs, but also to accessing affordable housing, and thus it helps to perpetuate homelessness (Mead and Rankin par. 3 and par. 18). Considering that there are legislations that reinforce this behavior, it has even led to situations where members of the police force have harassed and shamed homeless members of society. There were reports of police harassment in Boise, Idaho being so intense that it forced a homeless man to move to some nearby woods in order to avoid citations for public camping (Butler 00:04:04 00:04:15).
Even worse was the situation in Los Angeles in 2016, where police arrested 14,000 people experiencing homelessness for everyday activities such as sitting on sidewalks. The scrutiny that they face can lead to the destruction of their self-esteem, dignity and motivation, which in turn feeds their unhealthy lifestyles, addictions and even care avoidance. Care avoidance is defined as partly or completely turning away from threat-related cues, which results in not being able or willing to be involved in care that is necessary (Klop et al. page 2). The true weight of the negativity instilled by the laws were expressed by a Corpus Christi Shelter coordinator, Lisa Veaudry, who says, You don’t stop being homeless just because you are being ticketed and moved out of the alley (Butler 00:05:11 00:05:17). According to former Albuquerque Mayor, Richard Berry, the punitive approach to homelessness is a method that has failed time and time again, and only serves to dehumanize those who suffer from the tragic reality of homelessness (00:03:45 00:04:02).
With punitive methods continuously resulting in failures, one must look at the various methods that are being employed throughout the country to combat the monstrosity that is homelessness. While serving as Mayor, Berry had instituted a program called Better Way. According to Berry, the There’s a Better Way campaign gives panhandlers a chance at a change in life and lift them up through the dignity of work (00:00:38 00:01:03).
The program also provides a more pragmatic and better way for community members to donate their money. The program will offer day jobs to various homeless people across the city, giving them the chance to earn money and have a hot meal during the day. The jobs are menial in nature, mostly dealing with clearing areas of debris, weeds, trash and any other unsightly materials from city blocks and public spaces. The program runs with the aid of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center and the trust of the community. Richard believes that offering the day job to the homeless population also makes them much more likely to sign up for whatever services they need to help improve and stabilize their lives. The evidence for this can be found in the reported data, where, to date, about 1200 day jobs have been provided and over 180 people have been connected with some kind of permanent employment opportunities. It also shows that most homeless people are genuinely willing to work for their wages, despite some negative stereotypes that say otherwise, a claim substantiated by interviews with various homeless persons (Butler; Rideau).
An emphasis on empathy and disregard for the negative stereotypes are at the center of the homeless solution for Adam Rideau in Temecula, California. Adam leads various community-based efforts that seek to reduce the homeless problem, which had an unexpected increase of 129% in 2017 (00:05:54 00:06:14).
Adam believes that individuals from all walks of life can help those affected by homelessness, whether it’s through speaking out against any laws or policies that inadvertently dehumanize those who are unfortunate enough to be stricken by it, or by helping when they’re in need, instead of simply ignoring them. It’s this sort of community understanding and empathy on the situation that can lead to trust with leaders and encourage solutions like Berry’s Better Home programs and even the unique solution proposed in Seattle, Washington, city-sanctioned encampments for the homeless. In 2016, Seattle was declared a state of emergency for homelessness, and provided sanctioned encampments for the homeless population. These areas are relatively small, but they provided proper shelter, food and bathrooms for those who needed it. The encampments also allowed the homeless population, especially those who were in the transitional stage, to seek jobs to support themselves while, again, they would seek out the resources and treatment they needed to better their lives. This community treatment also allowed for the catering of the individual care that would allow the circumvention of the homeless population’s tendency for care avoidance through low-barrier access to the necessary care, as we;; as tailored care and the freedom to build trusting relationships (Klop et al. pages 7 -8). The usage of peers in these programs can also increase the success rate as peers may be a potential change mechanism, especially with training and supervision from professionals (Barker et al. page 10).
Like Seattle, Mayor Garcetti declared a state of emergency in regards to homelessness. A more sustainable model of housing like the Skid Row Housing Trust, a trust that provides permanent supportive housing for people who have experienced homelessness, is the most forward solution (Nazar 00:03:20 00:03:51). It would have all the resources they need to address the various issues that tend to affect the homeless, including behavioral problems, mental illness, physical ailments, and the lack of necessary life skills. These services could help break the cycle of homelessness, and help former homeless people to become self-reliant.
Stephanie Pencil, a sustainability scientist from the Institute of Environment and Sustainability at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and director of California Sustainable Communities, believes the question of homelessness is being looked at backwards. She says that authorities are not thinking about where affordable and decent long-term permanent housing can be built, and that methods of decreasing the cost of housing should be explored more, especially considering that the exuberant cost of housing is a major recurring factor in the personal anecdotes of many homeless persons. Rob Jernigan, an architect and regional manager of Gensler Architects in downtown LA, works with Skid Row Housing Trust. He, along with many others in the field, believe building sustainable housing is very a difficult but necessary component of alleviating the homeless issue. Unfortunately, he cites difficulty managing supplies and mitigating costs for these projects as a reason for the slow incorporation of this methodology to combatting the problem. Compared to punitive methods though, permanent supportive housing and mental health or substance abuse treatment would cost less and work better, according to research done at the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University Law School (Mead and Rankin par. 15).
This would work with the alteration of policies that would emphasize the focus on these methods.
Policies can have a major influence on the effects of homelessness. D’Souza propose changes on a larger scale through policy actions, namely the multi-faceted concept of inclusion. According to her, growth is said to be inclusive when it allows all members of the society to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from the growth process on an equal basis, regardless of individual circumstances (page 32). She argues that inclusive growth should therefore become a major policy priority so as to ensure that everyone has a share of the benefits of growth. Her study justifies the need to address the problem of homelessness on propriety basis and reinforces the mentality of adopting appropriate/low-cost housing policies (page 38).
The development of a comprehensive national policy framework on homelessness would be a more effective method of combatting it on a national scale. Evidence demonstrates that homelessness and housing instability in cities in Canada are generally associated with decisions made by policy-makers, landlords and employers, the impacts of which can be measured over time (Katz et al. page 1). Again, this information is reinforced by Mead and Rankin, whose research suggested that municipalities do not address the underlying problems that cause homelessness (par. 9). The cost of doing nothing, or continuing with punitive programs far outweigh the cost of giving homes to all of a city’s chronically homeless. Policies like these can and have been implemented in USA, with one of the most notable examples being in New York City. The program is known as the Frequent Users Service Enhancement Initiative (FUSE). It provides permanent supportive housing works for a multitude of people who have experienced homelessness, including those who have the additional burdens of mental-health challenges or criminal records (Semuels par. 7).
It gives homes to people who have experienced the trauma of living on the streets, without asking much of them in return. The combination of stable housing and supportive services are the magic ingredients that make it possible for people who have frequently fallen through the cracks in the social-safety net to regain stability in their lives and move forward, said Steven Banks, the commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services. Given the costs of shelter, the cost of incarceration and the health-care costs, it’s a cost-effective investment for government (Semuels par 9). Finally, research from a Columbia study has born evidence that the program is capable of saving approximately $15,000 per participant in reduced jail time and reduced costs crisis-health services, proving the potential that this program has (Aidala et al. page 50).
The factors that cause homelessness are as varied as its many sufferers, and unfortunately, while everyone has the noble intention of resolving the situation, not all the methods employed are beneficial for the victims, or even society at large. Thankfully, that hasn’t stopped some people from acknowledging society’s failures to provide for its less privileged members. Instead, through ingenious, novel or pragmatic ideas and methods, homelessness is being slowly but surely combatted through affordable housing, cost-effective charity, peer and community efforts and advocating for greater policy changes that will prevent the vulnerable from falling through the cracks. Whether it is considered a plague, monster, disease or state of emergency, it takes a concentrated effort of noble and charitable people and their well-thought-out tactics to finally rid this nation of the reality of homelessness.
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