On the Issues: Changing the Way We Think About Homelessness
The word "homeless" perpetuates the myth that the solution to chronic, street homelessness is purely affordable housing. Early services for those who were homeless reflected this belief, as evidenced by the system of emergency shelters that was established to provide food and shelter. But temporary shelter soon became a permanent place to live for thousands of people. Food and shelter were not solving the problem.
For many who live on the street, life is a daily nightmare of psychiatric delusion and physical illness. Health problems and the risk of accident, assault, or homicide are daily realities. People who are chronically homeless often seek medical or mental health treatment only when they are facing a serious medical emergency. By this time they are often suffering from multiple, irreversible, and chronically untreated conditions.
In our experience, chronic homelessness is usually a symptom of treatable problems including substance abuse and mental illness. At Volunteers of America, we believe it is critical to address the issues underlying a client’s homelessness if we are to help break the cycle of chronic homelessness.
While sincere and well-meaning, those who give individuals who live on the streets handouts of money or food are, ironically, perpetuating a tragedy. Many who choose the streets over shelters do so because disabilities cloud their decision-making ability. Their "choice" is often a rejection of service and not an informed response to the conditions of the shelters.
We ask the public to resist giving well-intentioned but misguided handouts of money, or even food and blankets to people which enables people to continue their life on the street. No one should live on the street. Instead, we encourage the public to advocate for supportive housing for the formerly homeless; donate time or money to a social services organization that helps the homeless. The chronically homeless know where they can find help but have not yet chosen to do so. Moving into shelter and accepting services takes strength and courage and a willingness to take responsibility.
Programs that recognize and treat underlying problems can help the homeless turn their lives around. But before we can provide treatment, we must help people in need accept, and take responsibility for such treatment. To do this, we must assert - to the homeless and to ourselves - that people who are homeless are people worth saving.
Volunteers of America and other organizations that provide service-rich programs for the homeless can attest that these real-life success stories are happening every day. We call them Everyday Miracles.