Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Essay on Homelessness in America

Essay on Homelessness

The crucial point about homelessness is that it makes us feel uncomfortable. Short of denying that a problem exists (the position favored by the federal government throughout a good portion of the 1980s), a common way of coping with our uneasiness is to define the homeless as “outsiders,” to accentuate the differences between the deviant “them” and the normal “us.” This strategy is employed in both academic and lay discussions that emphasize high rates of physical and mental illness, drug abuse, criminality, transience, and other stigmatizing traits among the homeless.

Fashioning an effective response to homelessness is a shared responsibility of local, state, and federal government and of the private nonprofit services sector. A response that is locally designed and administered stands a better chance of addressing problems in that locality. On the other hand, the very uneven geographic distribution of the homeless population and variations in local capacity and interest suggest a role for higher levels of government. In addition to providing financial support for impacted localities, the state and federal levels of government can support policy innovation. Given the fiscal constraints on action at the federal level, the states may be in a better position to sponsor innovative programs and their evaluation.

At the community level, an effective response will require new mechanisms to coordinate services for the homeless. Coordination responsibilities probably should not rest with a single shelter or service agency, since each deals with an unrepresentative fraction of the homeless population and may hold a specialized professional perspective. Given their highly successful performance in administering a portion of the Federal Emergency Management Administration emergency food and shelter program and its tradition of coordinating a diverse group of services at the community level, local United Ways may be the appropriate forum within which to organize a coordinated services response to homelessness. Two agencies that have played major parts in helping the homeless, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, are generally under the United Way umbrella. Public welfare agencies and community mental health centers also must play a coordinating role if a coherent system of services is to be created.

Turnaways may occur even when and where there are substantial shelter vacancies for varied reasons. First, many shelters have restrictive admissions policies. Some do not take women and children. Others may not permit admission to unwed couples. Second, newly homeless people sometimes do not know about available shelter space. Those turned away from one shelter may, in many cases, find shelter elsewhere on the same night.

Shelter beds may go unfilled also because many homeless people avoid them or use them only reluctantly. The better shelters, offering specialized services such as psychiatric counseling or job referrals, are more likely than others to be fully occupied. Too many shelters, however, are dirty, uncomfortable, and even dangerous. There is a need to be concerned not only with the numbers accommodated in shelters but with what goes on there.

Centralization of responsibility at the local level is a virtual prerequisite for the establishment of effective procedures. These procedures should include a comprehensive individual needs analysis and continuous tracking of service provision and its results. Since many of the homeless have multiple-service needs, the timing and delivery of help by various agencies should be centrally managed. Since this is a highly mobile population both within and between communities, shelters and other providers must be prepared to share information about their clients, given the clients’ informed consent. Since the homeless frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries, state governments should authorize and encourage the exchange of information across localities. States should lead in creating a coordinated system of services for the homeless at the community level. States also should sponsor and support demonstration efforts to meet the differentiated needs of the homeless, including prevention programs, crisis care and counseling, developmental services for those on public assistance, and an array of in-community custodial care arrangements. These demonstrations should be carefully evaluated and the best ones used as models for permanent state or federally funded programs.

If the American public accepts the creation of a permanent massive shelter system as the main response to homelessness, then it accepts also the permanence of a large population with no place to call home. A society that accepts this as a solution accepts its failure to develop effective approaches to prevention, its abandonment of reintegration as a goal for most of the homeless who need special help to live independently, and its failure to create new permanent custodial settings for those who have been debilitated by poverty and life on the streets.
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