Ending Homelessness for All
There’s been a lot of conversation lately about solving the problem of chronic homelessness in Charlotte. In fact, there’s an exciting new initiative, Housing First Charlotte-Mecklenburg: Ending Chronic Homelessness in 2016. I think this approach is great for several reasons. First, it has been clearly established that those who are experiencing chronic homelessness are our most vulnerable citizens and are over users of our public resources (i.e. jail, emergency rooms, etc.), thus costing our community the most per person served. Second, this is a well defined initiative, targeting a definable population with specific resources and within a specific time frame. Finally, it draws public attention to the issue of homelessness and encourages people to get involved.
What concerns me is that we don’t forget that those experiencing chronic homelessness make up less than 20% of all people (individuals, families, and youth) who are experiencing homelessness (the others are often referred to as situationally or episodically homeless). There is a specific definition from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that labels those experiencing chronic homelessness. HUD defines chronic homelessness “as an individual or family with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years (HUD Exchange website ). I also worry about our overuse of labels on people who are in crisis, but I’ll leave that conversation for another time.
What troubles me when any community places all of it emphasis on ending chronic homelessness, as defined by HUD, is that it can have unintended consequences. People who are on the cusp of chronic homelessness but do not yet qualify for assistance because of the definition may have to deteriorate before being properly served. This could lead to creating a new group of chronically homeless citizens while solving the issue for others, thereby actually perpetuating chronic homelessness. What about homeless families and individuals who, with just a little assistance or some ongoing support, can end their homeless experience permanently? If our resources are overly committed to ending chronic homelessness then we may make it harder for others to escape the cycle of homelessness.
I’m not saying don’t dedicate resources to helping those experiencing chronic homelessness. I’m convinced that ending chronic homelessness will actually free up resources to accelerate ending and preventing homelessness for all. I’m arguing, however, that our community has the resources, the compassion, and the expertise to solve homelessness for all at the same time. I’m not sure in any other area of human services would we logically say help the 20% while hindering the 80%.
Keep Housing First, it’s a great initiative and one I fully support. Let’s just not focus only on the chronically homeless, or families, or children, or men, or women. Let’s work together to offer solutions for all of our citizens experiencing homelessness. Actually, it’s happening already… at Charlotte Family Housing, Community Link, the Salvation Army, Men’s Shelter of Charlotte (MSC)… the list goes on. In fact, at MSC we serve men experiencing chronic homelessness, episodic homelessness, veterans homelessness, and family homelessness. We just don’t use the labels. We serve men who are experiencing homelessness with an emphasis on solving the crisis for each of them, period.
I think we should focus less on labels and more on finding out what barriers each person or family experiencing homelessness is facing and helping them overcome those barriers in order to end their homeless experience and prevent them from returning to homelessness in the future. Ultimately, this is how we will end the experience of homelessness for all in our community.