Friday, July 12, 2013

Do Shelters Cause Homelessness?

Andy Kessler, former hedge fund manager, has caused quite a stir with his assertion that shelters and the people who volunteer in them (including his own teenaged son) are the root cause of homelessness. His comments have generated quite a discussion throughout the country (and undoubtedly at his own dinner table)… what do you think? Quite simply, he reasons it’s because shelters provide food, clothing and a ‘home’ that people living in shelters are disencented from working and contributing to the economic stability of our country. He’s not the first to make the argument that we have these problems in our community because we offer help.

Contrary to what you may think, people who work in human service agencies aren’t pushovers offering a tissue and free access to a shoulder to cry on. Yes, we tend to be compassionate and caring… but we’re also really pragmatic. We absolutely offer support and assistance when someone is in crisis, but we use that crisis as a beginning. What factors contributed to the crisis? And what actions does the person need to take to correct not just the immediate problem but the factors that contributed to it. Often this means getting a job (or a second one), reducing spending, and taking a hard look at the choices they were making (cell phone, cable TV, smaller apartment, owning a car vs. public transportation.) Many of the homeless persons we assist are working; they just couldn’t make ends meet. So the focus becomes finding out why…not to make excuses, but to create needed change.  Because human service non-profit agencies can’t offer generous salaries, folks who work in the field tend to be really good at these practical decisions; that’s how they get by.

So it’s true our nonprofits may provide a meal to someone who is hungry, a roof when they have nowhere to go, or a warm coat in the winter, but that’s just where our services start. Our true goal is to help people achieve safe, stable lives. That process isn’t easy and generally requires some candid conversations and personal change. ..along with understanding and compassion.

In the past few years as our economy became more challenging I’ve heard many people saying their understanding of homelessness has changed. It’s not just the chronically addicted person or someone with severe mental health issues unwilling to accept treatment who becomes homeless. More and more I hear people sign, “So many of us are just one tragedy or one paycheck away from a housing crisis.”

I ‘m glad that if that happens, we have agencies and people who care to help us get back on track.

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