Have you ever started a conversation with someone when you KNEW that what you had to say might not be very palatable? Forget “not very palatable…;” what you have to say might just annoy people… This is one of those times. Because I know that what I am about to say might be controversial, I ask you now to just stay with me until the end…hear me out please.
Back to the hungry people. There was an item in the national news last August regarding “feeding the homeless.” The short story is that a church group in Raleigh had been going to a City park on weekends for six years to hand out food to “the homeless.” In August they were stopped by the police and told that they could no longer distribute food because of a city ordinance. The church was upset, the police were upset, the Mayor and City council were upset, and the people not being fed were upset. The comments were free-flowing, the rhetoric spewed forth from both sides, and very few of those making comments really stopped to listen to the others.
The story reminded me a great deal of our situation here in Birmingham.
Back to the beginning of this blog…why should what I’m saying offend anyone?
Because I am going to suggest that while feeding someone in a park or other public property is, on the surface, a nice, thoughtful, caring gesture, we as a community are able to do better than this.
To find a solution to a problem or concern, you must first understand the problem. Let’s see if we can do that in a pared-down, few-bullet-points type manner.
Should hungry people be fed? I think the only possible response is yes. Are there options other than public feedings in parks? There are definitely some options worth discussing….options that provide human dignity, build someone’s self-esteem and further someone’s journey towards self-reliance. Wouldn’t these options lead to a positive impact in our city that goes far beyond an afternoon lunch in the park?
Michelle Farley is the Executive Director of One Roof.
In April 2013, John Andrew Young, a current Master of Public Health student at UAB, came to One Roof in search of a summer internship. John Andrew has a passion for policy and he wanted to help us achieve our mission by researching ways to effect positive and sustainable change for folks experiencing homelessness in our area. Under the direction of Michelle Farley, Executive Director of One Roof, and Valerie Bouriche, Administrative Coordinator of One Roof, John Andrew began a deeply involved project, researching and documenting nation- and world-wide best practices for preventing and ending homelessness.
At February’s monthly membership meeting, nearly a year after he began his project, John Andrew presented his research to our member agencies and we had a lively and thoughtful discussion about ways to maximize our resources to best serve folks experiencing homelessness in our area. We cannot thank John Andrew enough for his time, energy, and dedication to this project.
As you review these practices, we hope that you see how each is related to One Roof’s mission to prevent and end homelessness in our community. We understand that preventing and ending homelessness is different for each client–that each person experiencing homelessness in our area has an individual and complex set of circumstances that must be taken into account so that they receive the best and most appropriate care and services.
As recent Point in Time data indicates, the three largest subpopulations of folks experiencing homelessness in our area are folks who are chronically homeless, folks living with serious mental illnesses, and folks who chronically abuse substances. John Andrew’s presentation shows that many of the practices he researched are a proven method for preventing and ending homelessness for these particular groups in our country and other countries. We believe that these practices, while not appropriate for all clients or all service providers, can help eliminate barriers to housing for clients who are chronically homeless, severely mentally ill, or chronic substance abusers. Here are a few of these promising practices:
Clients experiencing homelessness are quickly placed into a safe, decent, and affordable home, bypassing emergency shelters and transitional housing programs. This allows a client who was previously unstable to quickly gain stability. Clients are provided access to various services (mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, healthcare, etc), but these services are not required. The main goal is taking vulnerable persons off the street and placing them into a safe, stable home. We believe that stability is paramount to personal growth and self-care. Stability allows clients to focus on underlying issues at the root of their prolonged instability.
SSI/SSDI Outreach Access and Recovery (SOAR) is a national best practice aimed to increase SSI/SSDI benefits for persons living with a disabling condition and experiencing homelessness. These benefits provide a stable income, reduce economic insecurity for those who have a disabling condition and are unable to work, and allow access to health insurance and certain types of permanent housing. This practice also provides an immediate source of income for clients living with a disabling condition and reentering society after incarceration. Utilization of this practice prevents and ends homelessness for clients living with disabling conditions and experiencing homelessness / at-risk for experiencing homelessness. We believe that persons living with disabilities deserve stability and One Roof currently has a SOAR Specialist, Keyana Lewis, who assists clients applying for SSI/SSDI benefits. To read more about our SOAR program, click here.
Simply put, this practice reduces harm for clients who abuse substances. When a service provider practices harm reduction, clients are accepted as they are when they show up for services and they don’t have to fear expulsion due to their substance abuse. If a client shows up to a shelter or housing provider and is denied entry because they are under the influence, they may be forced to stay on the street. Staying on the street is unsafe for a person under the influence because they are more vulnerable and less able to perceive extreme temperatures and weather conditions. With a safe and warm place to sleep, potential harm is significantly reduced. Clients can be connected with appropriate supportive services which allow them to gain stability, minimize unhealthy outcomes due to their substance abuse, and work on underlying issues which might be causing them to abuse substances.
To read more about these practices and others, be sure to check out John Andrew’s presentation. One Roof is deeply committed to preventing and ending homelessness in our area through advocacy, education, and the coordination of services. While these practices may not be the solution for all clients or all housing providers, John Andrew’s research shows that these practices can allows us to successfully and strategically prevent and end homelessness; increase opportunities for housing, economic, and employment stability for community members; plan for more efficient use of community resources; and build a stronger community. We believe that all community members deserve safety, stability, and a decent and affordable home. To support One Roof’s efforts, click here.
Josh Helms is an AmeriCorps member serving at One Roof as the Capacity Building Assistant.