For Homeless Services, One Size Does Not Fit All

By | Jul 27, 2010

In the summer of 2005 there were over 30 heat related deaths in Phoneix, Arizona. Half of the people who died due to the heat were experiencing homelessness. This rash of deaths served as a “wake up call” to the metropolitan Phoenix community, the media ran with the story of the deaths and the community responded.

Since then, the private and public sectors have joined forces to provide hydration stations and wellness checks during the hot summer months.  Water donation drives bring in more than 200,000 bottles of water to help people experiencing homelessness enduring the heat.  Without a doubt, people care and have the best of intentions.

The problem is, the deaths that summer were not due to dehydration. Rather, those living on the streets died because their bodies were unable to cool down, their internal organs literally cooked. What they needed was shelter, or better yet, housing.  Despite the real need though, our community response was to provide water.

Meeting the Need

Isn’t it so often the case that our response doesn’t truly match the need?  Thank you, shoe store, for the large donation of closeout flip-flops. Thank you, church, for the sandwiches. Thank you, community for the water.  Those things were given with love and for the right reasons.  Such donations certainly help people to survive on the streets, but they don’t help end homelessness.

Yes, I said end homelessness. It is a solvable problem, for anyone and everyone.  And it’s not that complicated. The antidote to homelessness is housing paired with customized support services.  Contrary to popular opinion, no one aspires to experience homelessness.

People do not enjoy living on the streets, but they stay there because the one size fits all approaches of our systems continue to fail them. Our help is designed to serve the majority.  Most people experiencing homelessness are willing to stay in congregate living and trust their case managers. Most people are able to keep appointments, have identification, and are able to work.

But not all.

Therein lies the problem.  The network of assistance we have created helps a lot of people escape homelessness, but we cannot ignore the ones left behind – the square pegs that don’t fit into round holes.

Housing alone is not enough to achieve stability. An individual might have housing, but would also need transportation, employment, and child care in order to maintain that housing.  The solution is to create the appropriate mix of housing and services to meet the unique needs of each individual.

The concept is simple enough, but it does require a paradigm shift from provider-centered services to client-centered services.

Client Centered Services

First, we must honestly and comprehensively assess the needs of each individual and then find the housing, programs, and services to meet those needs.  Too often, service providers only inquire about the niche of services they offer.

Housing providers only ask questions related to housing. Substance treatment providers only ask about use of substances.  Employment agencies ask about job readiness and skills.

If I handed out puzzle pieces to people at random, no one would ever know what the whole puzzle looked like.  The sum of the parts, the big picture, the whole person, is important.  Either one case manager needs to have an awareness of all of the needs or a team of people need to bring their puzzle pieces to the table and work together to have an understanding of the whole.

Second, service providers must collectively do whatever it takes to move individuals and families experiencing homelessness back to housing and stability. It’s not about screening people out¸ it’s about serving the person requesting help, regardless of his/her challenges or barriers.  I don’t mean to oversimplify this step.  It’s actually very difficult to implement, but it’s the only way to help those with the most significant challenges.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a speech by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan in which he said, “We have already proven we can house anyone.  Now our challenge is to house everyone.”  I could not agree more.

Photo credit: luz