I’ve heard it over and over – that the solution to homelessness is housing. But that’s a vague and easy answer. Every homeless person has been in housing before, but something happened. If housing was the ultimate solution, then why did they lose it? The wrong kind of housing may be worse than no housing at all.
I have personally visited people living in hundreds of housing units in Dallas. These were homeless individuals that gained housing through some program that was intended to get them back on their feet. Some of them were successful, however many of them later returned to the streets. This magical solution to homelessness has a problem that keeps being ignored.
Sometimes, these new housing units and their new residents are left to perish without any supportive services. A team works tirelessly to get someone housed, only to ignore them once they get their keys. I have met too many senior citizens in apartments without food or toilet paper, sleeping on the carpet (no furniture) and fighting to keep the insects and drug dealers out. I have met some individuals who became victims of trafficking while others were left to die, only to be discovered by apartment managers because the case manager never stopped by to check on them.
Recently in a conversation with a group that gets millions for housing in Dallas, I was told that successful case management is considered one visit per month with each client. Imagine a person who hasn’t used toilet paper in a few years, has been digging in dumpsters for four years, and shooting heroin for six years. They get dropped in an apartment without food, toilet paper, furniture, or support and they only get a 30 minute visit once a month. How is this better than sleeping on the streets when people visited them regularly? I know too many people in housing today, who only speak to their case managers every few month. They are left alone to fight to survive.
Even with the recent discussions of housing, I hear the focus on the real-estate. How much will it cost to build and maintain the property? Or how cost effective can we build these tiny houses or reclaimed shipping containers? The opportunities for property development focus on the mechanics and capital expenses, but they are ignoring the elephant in the room. More than the cost of any upscale loft or prime real estate, is a cost that needs to be factored before we start looking through property listings. We need to count the cost of dealing with the reason they are homeless:
- chronic illness
- broken relationships because of trust violations
- permanent criminal background
- lack of familial connections
- mental health
- terminal illness
- dysfunctional behaviors and relationships
- spiritual emptiness
These are all deep rooted issues that sometimes result in someone not having a safe place to sleep. Unless we treat the problems, we will continue to fight the symptom (homelessness). I have witnessed far too many people moved into housing, only to struggle without any support or services and left abandoned in their new apartment.
- Housing first, is supposed to be followed by a second. (Don’t we lose points on the assignment when our outline stops at 1?)
What Dallas needs is a new kind of housing. We need permanent supportive housing that works. We need the support services baked into the recipe. We need to figure out how we are going to pull off an AA meeting, a life skills class, one-on-one counseling and group therapy into the community. We need a place for those who want to meet with a chaplain, attend a Bible study or seek intensive discipleship to thrive. We need a place for the senior citizen to sit and play dominos, the young couple expecting a child and the single mom with five kids to live peacefully without the fear of the crime ridden neighborhoods in which they grew up.
The organizations that will eventually get the millions of dollars to build this, must have accountability and transparency. The people who get their housing must be followed up with. Their information must be shared with other organizations to insure outside audit and accountability. Anyone who keeps/quits/leaves/loses their housing must be followed up with. I meet too many people passed out behind a liquor store who have just lost their housing again. The same guy who’s picture is used on a poster as a success story, might be struggling to survive or worse. Before we cheer at the scoreboard for the number of people we have housed, we need to follow up on those who have fallen through the system. We need better accountability.
For the record, I’m really excited about CitySquare’s Cottages. I truly see this as the first example of a solution with potential. It’s a beta test, and no one knows how it will work out, but it was built with services in mind. I’m fully confident that CitySquare will do everything they can to insure the success of this new community. It can, with accountability, be great. If this model is expanded, it needs to be built much cheaper, and in many pockets like this across the city, but this could work. This has the potential to be great.
Someone recently asked me why I care about this. I’m a pastor and we don’t do housing. We created a menu to refer people to hundreds of resources, to make the connection between those who are on the streets with the right program that can help them. I care about housing because I care deeply about the people. Many are sold on ideas that eventually hurt them. They are made promises that no one intends on keeping. They are lied to, used for fundraising and paraded as show-and-tell success stories, only to be ignored and left to perish in solitude. I care about this because people’s lives are at stake. I care about the people that have been hurt, and the quick fixes that lead to more failure.
I think we should explore all options. I’m very excited about the new initiative that was announced at City Hall to collect and evaluate ideas on long term solutions. Housing, counseling, recovery, shelter, camping – they all need to be explored. Have any ideas? Post them at https://www.facebook.com/Solutions-for-Dallas-Homeless