Back when I started as the head of a small homeless agency on the Westside of Los Angeles, the board of directors and I were proud that our programs were based on a “tough love” approach. People in our program had to perform chores, follow rules, and look for a job if they wanted to stay in our beds.
It just made sense. Our thinking was that no one should get a free ride. When everyone else was working hard, paying bills, and raising children, our program participants should not get free rent and food without some sort of “payment.”
Decades ago, our transitional housing programs made sure people “paid” for their beds through some sort of chore, like cleaning the floors, mopping the bathrooms, or doing the dishes. And they had to be sober and have a respectful attitude while on the premises.
The program worked. At least, it worked for the capable, hard-working, mentally-stable folks who had simply lost a job and would have been homeless without “tough love” programs like ours.
Years later, however, most people have realized that homeless programs like this did not end homelessness in our communities. In fact, in some regions, homelessness has become rampant.
So why did homelessness increase so rapidly if these “tough love” homeless programs that housed hundreds, if not thousands of people, were so successful?
It is very simple. There was a large segment of the homeless population that was never served by these programs. Many of the people experiencing homelessness were struggling with chronic illnesses, extreme mental health issues, and/or physical disabilities. Following rules and performing chores to “earn” a shelter bed was not effective for them.
Imagine a person who hears phantom voices and experiences extreme paranoia being expected to mop floors and thank his caseworkers for being so kind. It is not realistic. Such residents often wound up getting evicted.
So, these “service-resistant” folks stayed on the streets instead of entering programs that could have transitioned them back into homes.
If you can’t follow our rules, then you can just stay on the streets. And lots of people did stay on the streets. Or in parks, on the beach, in the hills, or along rivers. Tough luck.
So, what to do? There are two polarizing opinions. We can write these people off as “lazy,” “crazy,” and unable to be housed, and let them stay on the streets. Or, we can figure out a new approach that will get them off the streets, no matter how they act.
Today, we de-emphasize the tough part of our love by focusing less on rules and more on how to get these people housed. Many people call this “housing first.” I like to call it “people first,” or “dignity first.”
Sometimes we are criticized for being too lenient. We let people stay in the program, or in their housing, even if there is alcohol on their breath. We don’t kick them out, even if they scream at the cook because they wanted eggs, not cereal.
We do this because we know that if we kick out people who are struggling with chronic homelessness, they will become even more hardened against the idea of moving back into housing. Sure, safety and security are still primary, and threats against them are an appropriate reason for eviction. But, barring that, successful housing programs for the chronically homeless reduce the “tough” rules in order to keep people engaged and on the path to housing.
Those of us who have been operating emergency homeless programs for decades sometimes still struggle with the idea of letting people get a “free ride.” But, if our true mission truly is to house people no matter what, then softening the toughness in our love for people on the streets is simply the best approach.