Michell Spoden — Despite having a team of American astronauts land on the moon more than 40 years ago, America still has around a million homeless people many of whom don’t even have a shelter and have to live on the streets. This situation calls for attention on national level to alleviate the suffering of these people who are vulnerable to rough weather, accidents, crime, and all kinds of risks arising from lack and comfort of a house to live in.
After reading an interview with Jay S. Levy, author of the books Homeless Narratives & Pretreatment Pathways: From Words to Housing and Homeless Outreach & Housing First: Lessons Learned, I contacted him for telling us more about important issues in housing for homeless people in the US. Following is the first of a series of my questions which Jay Levy answered, explaining, informing, and suggesting solutions to manage homelessness in America.
Q: Are you aware that in most cities you must first be in a shelter to get any help for housing or have an eviction notice from a landlord? Why does it have to get to this point for folks before they get the help they may need?
Jay Levy: I share your frustrations about a system of care that is often broken or dysfunctional. Much of it comes down to adequate resources and actual caring. Something happens over time where good people with great intentions often get wrapped up in a system and set of services that is so fixated on eligibility restrictions that it no longer seems to serve a humanistic purpose. You pose an excellent question for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), as well as State level agencies such as the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).
These Federal and State agencies provide a great deal of the funds and policies that are used to help homeless individuals and families. When these funds are awarded to various local, private non-profit agencies, they come with a set of rules and expectations. One such requirement is the HUD definition of homelessness, which excludes people who are doubled up without their own residence, and only includes folks who are living in Shelter, on the streets, or living in a place not meant for human habitation, such as a car or an abandoned building. This year, the definition has been expanded via the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act to include women in domestic violence situations and youth (24 years old and under) who are moving from place to place. So doubled up youth now qualify, if they do not have a permanent residence and have moved at least twice in the last 60 days.
Similarly, there is a specific definition for “chronic homelessness” that used to apply only to individuals, but now has been expanded through the HEARTH Act to include families. The good news is that the people who meet these various definitions qualify for greater levels of assistance and aid. The bad news is that there are a great deal of Federal and State regulations imposed on local agencies to help determine who gets the aid and assistance versus who doesn’t qualify. When Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program dollars (HPRP funds) came out under the Obama administration to help prevent homelessness that would otherwise occur due to the worst economy since the great depression, this money was accessed by a broad range of people. Unlike the limitations indicated in your question, many people got help to pay back rent even though they were not yet in the process of eviction. This was a true prevention program! At the same time, others complained that there was not enough regulation to make sure that these federal dollars targeted those who were most in need and consequently the funds were quickly spent.
My educated guess is that the people in charge of HUD, HHS, and others believe that regulation is a necessary evil so you don’t have a mad rush for limited benefits and affordable housing resources. Based on the budgets these agencies are granted, there is not enough money to address the size of the problem. It really is a supply and demand issue that is managed via regulation and limited resources, as opposed to economic policies that foster higher wages, less unemployment, and affordable housing options. The problem with this approach is that it severely limits prevention dollars, which if targeted properly could lead to a great deal of savings, less homelessness, and better health outcomes for families and individuals.
Some viable options are for local agencies to raise their own funds, or to access grant money that comes with fewer stipulations. This could create flexible pots of dollars that can be managed on a local level to respond to local needs. One example is that in western MA, there are a number of colleges and universities that may be willing to donate funds to support local efforts of addressing poverty and homelessness. Another way to go about things is to develop working partnerships between helping organizations and private enterprise to create job training programs and housing solutions that could create a well-trained pool of job applicants, reduce homelessness, and improve the neighborhoods where businesses thrive. Sometimes, assistance is available through the faith community (local church, synagogue, Salvation Army, United Way) or via Community Action agencies that may assist with accessing benefits or temporary funds. At very least, there is a great need to create more affordable housing options matched with a good set of support services for those who are most in need.
There are clear benefits as evidenced by numerous studies that have shown that Housing First consisting of rapidly housing vulnerable homeless individuals with support services reduces medical costs and saves lives. I discuss some of these studies by Dr. Sam Tsemberis, as well as by Dr. James O’Connell and Dr. Hwang in my monograph (educational booklet) entitled Homeless Outreach & Housing First: Lessons Learned. More information on this project and my past book Homeless Narratives & Pretreatment Pathways can be found at http://www.jayslevy.com/
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More on this topic is coming up on GHN soon.
About the Interviewer
Michell Spoden is a survivor of a cold case rape case and author of the book Stricken Yet Crowned. She has an associate’s degree in Business Science Administration and is presently working on her Bachelors in Project Management.