We used to think providing a freshly-cooked meal for the hungry and a warm bed for the homeless was the solution to addressing this country’s homelessness.
That “Good Samaritan” approach to helping those who were down and out was a divine
But when homelessness increased dramatically despite compassionate responses, many experts turned to a new paradigm for resolving this country’s extreme
poverty. Today’s modern approach is called ” housing first” where the most hurting
people on the streets are given direct access to apartments, along with case workers who support them.
Communities across America have embraced this approach, acknowledging that a decades-old shelter system is just not the way to resolve homelessness. In
recent years, studies show that this approach is working. More housing is being built, more rental assistance is being provided, and more people are
getting off the streets.
But for those front-line agencies and care workers who encounter America’s hurting, they agree that passing out front-door house keys and providing
volunteer support is not the end of a person’s homelessness, especially for those who have been living on the streets for numerous years.
Last year, the agency I run moved in more than 2,000 formerly homeless people and family members into their own
apartments throughout southern and central California. Staff members, faith group supporters, and celebrities hand-carried tables, chairs, and beds into
these apartments so our newly housed neighbors would move into homes, not just empty apartments.
We memorialized these celebrative events with a picture of everyone huddled around a “I Made It Home!” sign.
You would think we should pat ourselves on our backs, knowing that we just moved a person off the streets and into a home.
But we are worried. Not only because there are so many more people who need to be housed, but also because these newly-housed neighbors need more than just
a furnished apartment.
We are worried about loneliness. About the temptation to return back to an old life. About an isolated life with no intimate relationships. A furnished
apartment with no links to the outside world is not the end of one’s state of homelessness, it is just bringing in a hurting, disconnected person off the
streets and into an apartment.
A weekly visit from a case worker, or an open case management office in the building, does not create an intimate, supportive community for a person who
has been isolated on the streets for years.
Last month, representatives from the Aileen Getty Foundation met with 120 of our case workers (who last
year helped house 2,000 people.) Getty and her team are promoting a post-Housing First approach to resolving homelessness.
They are creating a new model where we help our homeless neighbors (both unhoused or newly-housed) create a sense of belonging in a world that is becoming
more and more less relational, more technology-based — a world that is becoming colder.
Imagine living in the hills, hidden from people, for years and years? You can not just move into an apartment and assume your life will be changed overnight. Even if a case worker visits you every Tuesday afternoon.
New relationships need to be created, healthy habits need to be formed, and a community of people – whether neighbors or support groups — need to embrace
you. These are the transformative solutions to a disconnected person living isolated on our streets.
Housing is certainly the foundation for a healthy, changed life. Yes, housing should be first. But what follows is more than clinical support services.
Your state of homelessness will finally end when you belong to a supportive community that embraces you as their own.
Housing first. Community next.