Kathy Neary: A call for ‘housing first’
I have received quite an education since being appointed interim pastor at the McMinnville Cooperative Ministries. That education has centered on the issue of chronic homelessness, which is different from the myriad scenarios of temporary homelessness.
Chronic homelessness is defined as being homeless for more than a year or experiencing four or more episodes of homelessness in three years. When most of us think of the homeless, it is this group that comes to mind, usually with a great deal of anger and resentment. These are the people we see on the streets every day, and we wonder things like, “why can’t they just get a job?”, or, “why don’t they live someplace else?”
I will admit to the same anger, but I know that part of that anger comes from feeling helpless to help. The problem of chronic homelessness seems intractable. The needs of the chronically homeless seem endless, which is a fairly accurate assessment in some cases.
People who are chronically homeless generally lack the foundational skills necessary to thrive in our culture. They do not have the intellectual, emotional or social skills or the mental health to be able to help themselves.
I have yet to meet a homeless person who doesn’t have a story to tell of childhood abuse or neglect. The state of being chronically homeless is usually the end result of abuse, neglect, drug addiction or undiagnosed mental illness — and very often a combination of these.
Recognizing the situation is a great place to begin to address these problems. The goal of any program or effort should be to help people become well enough to care for themselves and possibly contribute to the well-being of others.
Because this is a huge task, it helps to break it down into manageable pieces.
The first need of the chronically homeless is basic survival. This means food and shelter from the elements. McMinnville is blessed with amazing nonprofit organizations and churches that provide meals for the homeless almost every day of the week. (Thursdays are still a problem if there is a kind person or organization who wants to help with that!) The people preparing and serving these meals are all volunteers, and their dedication is phenomenal. Any time you feel overwhelmed with the state of affairs in this country, visit one of these churches and volunteer to help. Volunteering is an amazing balm for the soul.
The Yamhill County Gospel Rescue Mission (YCGRM), under the direction of Kaye Sawyer, now provides both short term (30 days) and overnight emergency shelter for the homeless. The accomplishments of this shelter are outstanding. But it is already working at capacity, even though an expansion and additional emergency shelter just opened in November. The shelter is in need of more volunteers to help with the emergency program.
McMinnville would benefit from another emergency shelter, or for more long term housing solutions as described below.
When we start imagining what life beyond survival might look like for the chronically homeless, we have to start looking at solutions beyond the scope of volunteer efforts. For people to recover from chronic homelessness (and yes, it is an illness for which we need a cure), they need stability, care and opportunity to thrive.
Solutions include a system of single family homes that can house four to six people plus a case manager, or develop 10- to 20-unit apartment complex-type buildings that can manage larger numbers. These units would be available to anyone who meets the criteria of chronic homelessness. The goal would be to have people live in these units for up to two years while they relearn the processes of living well. This program would require large amounts of case management, covering everything from job training, mental health care, addiction treatment and social skills. Being clean and sober would not be a requirement of entering the program, but ongoing involvement in a treatment program would be emphasized if necessary.
We have known some of our chronically homeless people to get into residential chemical dependency treatment facilities and become sober, only to be released back on their own and again fall into drug addiction. Wouldn’t it be great if a homeless person coming out of a treatment facility actually had a home to go to?
There are some residential facilities like this, but they are mostly dedicated to helping people with mental illness or physical disability. I think chronic homelessness should be treated as the presenting issue. If a person has been homeless for more than a year, they would be eligible to live in such a home, without regard to sobriety or past criminal record. Once in a facility, the person’s needs other than shelter would be assessed and addressed.
This is called the “housing first” model, and it does sound expensive. But cities that have taken this approach to ending homelessness have found that it is less expensive to house people than it is to leave them homeless.
This model requires two things: The first is a change in our attitude toward the chronically homeless. We need to see the chronically homeless as our neighbors in need. No one in McMinnville would hesitate to help their neighbors if those neighbors lost their house to a fire. People would open their homes to take in these neighbors, funds for relief would be set up at the banks, and endless ham casseroles would be offered to feed these neighbors. We need to see folks who are left with nothing and living on the streets the same way. The chronically homeless are no more or less deserving of help than veterans, the mentally ill or people with disabilities. They are our neighbors. They should be helped to recover from homelessness.
The second requirement is to work at the state and federal levels to secure funding for these “housing first” programs. These programs are well beyond the church communities to fund, and well beyond most nonprofits to handle locally. Discuss the issue with our state and federal representatives. Ask Yamhill Community Action Partnership director Jeff Sargent and Housing Authority of Yamhill County director Elise Hui what can be done to further these programs. Ask our city council and our county commissioners to make “housing first” programs for the chronically homeless a policy priority.
Volunteering can go beyond serving food to the homeless: reserve some of your volunteer hours for political action. It will be just as rewarding.