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Homelessness Today: That Was Then, This Is Now

By | Feb 2, 2016

I remember a couple of decades ago helping people who were homeless was much easier. Not easy, but easier.

I remember that most of the people who walked into our transitional housing program in West Los Angeles looked like you or me. They entered our front doors because they lost a job. Or they couldn’t pay rent. Some would drive up in late-model cars. Others dressed like they were interviewing for a new job. They were articulate, educated, experienced.

The agency that I ran could boast, “Give us 90 days, and we will have them employed and back into an apartment!” Our success rate was amazingly high.

This is because the people who were homeless back then were highly functional, very healthy. They just needed a “hand up” with life.

Back then, we would talk about “empowerment”. Enter our programs, and we will empower people back into the mainstream of life. Our programs were “transitional”, because we knew we could transition people quickly.

We were teaching people “how to fish” rather than simply handing them a “fish”.

I remember also our supporters, our funders, and our community leaders possessed different attitudes. Back then, we (the homeless agency) were the “heroes” doing “God’s work”. Not a week would go by without some community member telling us how wonderful we were to “help the homeless”.

People supported us because it was the moral and compassionate response to a tragic human crisis.

Two decades later, however, things are dramatically different.

When I travel with our outreach workers on the streets of Los Angeles, I do not see people like you and me. I see people on the streets who are chronically sick. They are very dirty, having lived on the streets for years and years. They are old, or at least they look very old.

I see people who are talking to phantom voices, or who are strung out on some toxic substance. I see fear in their eyes, or at least a reflection of their empty souls. They look less like people, and more like zombies.

They certainly do not look like me.

No wonder why it is so hard to end homelessness in our country today. Twenty years ago, a person who was homeless looked like a middle-class person who fell down on their luck. Today, they look like they are in hospice care on the streets.

Supporters and community members look at homelessness much differently than before. Helping the homeless is less about compassion, and more about making the neighborhood better.

My pitch to potential supporters is no longer about instilling a moral purpose to giving; instead it is about describing an economic reason for addressing homelessness.

“It saves our community money, if we house people! No more costs for the emergency room, first responders, and emergency services.” “It is cheaper to house people, than leave them on the streets.” As if the business solution to homelessness is more persuasive than the moral approach.

Supporters of ours want to know what their “return on investment” is, if they grant us their money. Numerical outcomes are king.

Dollars trump compassion.

And some people just want these “homeless people out of my neighborhood!” It is definitely not about compassion.

After 20 years, the work of ending homelessness is much more difficult. The people we help are much more chronically homeless than before. Our supporters are more jaded. Our community is less compassionate for people who have been on their streets for decades.

But the hope in all of this is found in the fact that homeless programs like the one I lead, financial supporters, and even the community, have changed the way we approach homelessness.

Rather than providing quick Band-Aids for people on the streets—like a shelter bed and food—we are seeing that providing permanent housing with significant support services truly ends a person’s homelessness.

So rather than lamenting over how difficult it is to address homelessness today, we see hopeful solutions.

I think I’d rather take the difficult path to ending homelessness.