On Sunday, “60 Minutes” re-aired an updated version of its story on homeless families in central Florida. According to “60 Minutes,” one out of every four homeless children in the country are in Florida. During the story, one of the very mature teenagers said “we just ran out of options” when she told the story of how they came to live in their van. This story touched my heart as it did many others, as many reached out with money and help the first time it aired, so there were a few positive outcomes for the homeless children in the area, both the ones highlighted and others.
I have shared before that one of my passions is helping homeless families. I have been volunteering in some capacity for over 13 years. Yet, this is not about me – I only share this experience for context. There are three Americas in existence today – those who are comfortable, those who are above poverty living paycheck to paycheck and those in poverty. The US has one of the worst economic distributions in the world, meaning the distribution of wealth is highly tilted toward the wealthy. When people say the President is making certain issues a war between economic classes, this is misguided commentary. The war is over. The wealthy were decisively victorious.
These three Americas came to be, in my mind, when the Regan tax cuts in the early 1980’s dramatically reduced tax rates for the higher end. This “trickle down economics” which George H.W. Bush called “voodoo economics” when running against Reagan did not work, unless you were on the high-end. The disparity in income and wealth became extremely pronounced. Also, with the outsourcing of US jobs and welfare reform in the 1990’s, we paved the way for a diminishing middle class and increased poverty class. As referenced in an earlier post called “The Big Hairy Audacious Lies” the minimum wage jobs in the service, restaurant and retail economy actually perpetuate poverty.
But, I digress. This is about families who ran out of options and now live in a vehicle, in a shelter or on the street. If you see a family living in a hotel, that is usually the final step before outright homelessness, as the cost is too burdensome. Yet, the key comment I want to make for people who still believe the parent or parents are bums, no matter what I say, a significant number of these parents work or are employable, but have been impacted by the economy. Florida is significantly impacted by the recession as it had a lot of overbuilt commercial development and housing construction that ceased.The people highlighted in the “60 Minutes” episode are running through every option to find work, find suitable living space and find a reasonable life. The shelters are overcrowded, so like Joseph and Mary found, there is no room in the inn.
So, what do we need to do to help. First, do your best to walk in their shoes and convince others that the majority of homeless people out there are not the image embodied by the panhandler. We need to help the panhandler, as well, but the people whose picture I want in your mind are the homeless families and children. Where I live, we have courses for volunteers called “Poverty Simulation” and “Class (Economic) Matters.” The goal is to get people not in poverty to see what it is like to have to find options for food, shelter, transportation and income on a daily basis.
Second, irrespective of what people may think of the parents (again I am speaking to the people who believe the parents are bums), let’s help the children. There is data that shows homeless children have a greater propensity to become homeless adults than children who are housed growing up. Let’s break the cycle of homelessness for these kids. They did not choose to be homeless. If we break the cycle, they will benefit and the community will benefit as we replace someone in need with a taxpaying citizen who brings their intellectual capital to bear. I mention this last comment, as the second place prizewinner of the Intel Science award last year was a homeless girl.
Third, let’s help the families and children climb the ladder out of homelessness, not push them up the ladder. We have to empower the parent(s) and children to climb each rung. We have to make this a community effort, not just something good for the givers. There is a great book by Robert Lupton called “Toxic Charity” whose key themes are twofold – (1) the efforts to help have to be more about the people in need and not the donors and (2) there needs to be buy-in from the families and community to help make the changes sustainable.
I volunteer with an agency that uses this empowerment model for homeless families. It provides temporary shelter before the family is placed in an apartment of their choosing from a short list. It provides rental subsidies based on the ability of the family to pay and provides active social worker and career development support. It is a milestone based program, so the families have to be saving, creating a budget, attending classes on making better decisions, etc. The significant majority of these families are employed. If they are not working, they are employable and just recently lost a job. The “secret sauce” is our volunteers who help the families by mentoring children, aiding with budget help and sitting for kids while the parents get a GED or go to a career development class. The volunteers do not proselytize and sign a statement that they will not. The idea is not to do for the family what they can do for themselves. We have to help the family maintain their dignity and sense of self-worth as they climb the ladder out of poverty.
So, let’s help these families climb out of poverty and homelessness. Giving money and food is wonderful, but we need to find places for people to live and work. Some call our model a “Housing First” model. We do migrate people to housing soon, but not out of the box unless they are ready. The executive director likens getting a homeless family ready for housing to sending a child off to college. There are many ducks that have to be placed in a row, so having the temporary shelter as we ascertain why people are homeless is important. It also allows the family to stay together in their greatest time of need.
Homeless people are not all alike in what they need. Migrating employable homeless families into rental or subsidized housing in mixed use neighborhoods is terrific and we need to do more of that. Getting a roof over the families head in a stable environment is major step on the ladder and enables the family to succeed in climbing the rungs. Yet, there are more chronic homeless – disabled vets and non-vets, people with mental and/ or substance abuse issues – where the homeless need to be in a group setting. So, as your communities reach out to help, note that one size does not fit all. Yet, at the heart of the matter, is getting people off the street and having them pay rent based on their ability to pay.
The cost of helping the homeless in this manner is far cheaper than models that shelter them on an emergency basis or worse through incarceration. The shelters need to be temporary. Getting people in housing, providing measurable subsidies, and getting them the tools to help themselves ends up being more cost-effective. It also allows them to maintain their dignity and help themselves in a sustainable way. Sustainability is the key and will pay dividends for all including the community. Quoting a minister whose church helps those in poverty and homeless in a major way, “We cannot measure the intellectual capital that resides in these children. If we help them, we may be unlocking an enormous amount of potential.” I could not have said it better myself. Let’s help people climb their ladders.