I am sure when American singer, Dionne Warwick, sang the ballad “A House is Not a Home” back in 1964 she wasn’t singing about homelessness. She was singing about living in a house without the one you love. Later, Luther Vandross recorded the same song.
A few years ago, I was thinking about this song when I was part of an initiative in Long Beach, California to help place people living on the streets directly into apartments. We mobilized one hundred community volunteers to survey people on the streets through the 100K Homes campaign. We lined up housing vouchers and apartments, and we prepped these people for housed living.
And as we prepared to move people into their apartments, I could not sleep. Not because I was worried that these people would not be able to find apartments; we had already found the rental units. I was worried because I did not want them moving into stark, empty apartments with no furniture, no linens, and no dishes on which to eat their meals.
I kept thinking that we needed to transform these empty apartments into real, dignified homes. So, we created a “Welcome Home” kit program through which faith groups, corporate groups, and other volunteers donated and set up all the furniture, supplies, and other items necessary to make a formerly-homeless person’s new apartment feel like home.
Today, as we get ready to move more than 200 people from the streets of San Diego, California into permanent homes, more “Welcome Home” kits are already being assembled for the brand new apartments that are waiting for their inhabitants.
We are turning these houses into homes.
To date, PATH has helped thousands of people move into their own apartments, most with furniture and basic supplies provided. But sometimes I wonder if, without caring people attached, these houses are really homes?
It seems to me that ending homelessness is more than just building apartments, filling them with furniture, and then moving someone in. Ask anyone who is housed, but lonely—a senior with no family support, a recent divorcee sitting in an empty new apartment, or a recently housed formerly-homeless person—if their house feels like a real, loving home. Without care and support, a home just doesn’t feel as warm and comfortable to its inhabitants.
Certainly, we need to get people off the streets. We need to get people into long-term affordable apartments, filled with the essentials that make it a home.
But the journey does not end there.
We need to surround our recently housed neighbors with caring and supportive people. We need to knock on their front doors with apple pies in hand, welcoming them to the neighborhood and making sure they understand that we, their neighbors, are there for them should they need support.
For the past several years, most experts and policy makers have said that the solution to homelessness is “housing first,” i.e. moving people into affordable housing. Perhaps we should be saying “homes first,” so that we make sure we are also providing a supportive network of friends and neighbors who will care for our newly housed neighbors after they move in.
“Homes First” is what will ultimately end homelessness.