A lack of a support system.
Did my answer surprise you? I bet you were thinking it’d be something like “unemployment,” or “mental illness,” or “addiction.” While these issues certainly exacerbate someone’s homeless experience, the underlying cause is related to not having an adequate personal support system.
Think about it for a moment. If something tragic unexpectedly happened to you, I bet you could quickly think of ten people you could turn to for help. Maybe an extended family member? How about church friends? Co-workers? I’m not just talking about emotional support, though that’s very important. I mean tangible assistance – a place to stay for a week, help fixing a car, money for rent and groceries. For many of us our support system is strong. However, for those experiencing homelessness this support doesn’t exist or has eroded. Yes, sometimes people burn bridges through their choices and behavior. But sometimes the cards are stacked against them in the first place – for example, many youth age out of foster care with no support system at all. No wonder they often end up in homeless shelters or on the streets.
So, we have to help people experiencing homelessness address their immediate basic needs for shelter, clothing, and food. We also have to help them connect to programs and services that offer addiction recovery, medical care, and mental health treatment.
But to end homelessness we ultimately have to fix the root cause by helping people build their own personal support systems.
Did you know very few people experiencing homelessness die from exposure to the weather? Neither hypothermia (exposure to cold) or hyperthermia (exposure to heat) is hardly ever the primary cause of death.
In 2012, Philadelphia released a significant research report, City of Philadelphia Homeless Death Review, analyzing data from 2009-2010. Of 90 people experiencing homelessness who died during 2009-2010, the top five primary causes of death were
- drug intoxication or alcoholism,
- circulatory system diseases,
- diseases of an infectious etiology, and
Only 6% of deaths resulted primarily from hypothermia and hyperthermia combined.
The other important finding in their report was that homeless deaths do not follow a clear pattern of increase during cold months. In fact, almost 50% of the deaths studied in Philadelphia’s review occurred during the six months between April and September, the hottest months of the year (annual average high and low temperatures are strikingly similar in Philadelphia and Charlotte).
The reason I’m sharing this information is to debunk a major myth. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard over the years, “now that’s its getting warmer I bet fewer people need shelter because they can stay outside.”
It’s not about the weather, it’s about the other issues that cause death among people experiencing homelessness – poor health, accidents and injuries, and terminal illnesses – issues that can be exacerbated in hot and cold temperatures but are independent of the weather. It’s about making sure our citizens experiencing homelessness have safe shelter and assistance year round, not just in the winter months.
As we approach the first day of summer (June 21st), and prepare for pool parties, summer vacations, and time on the lake, please take a moment to support the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte with your time, treasure, and talent. We’re working hard 24/7/365 to help all men experiencing homelessness stay safe, healthy, and move beyond homelessness.
“Homelessness is decreasing.” Now that’s a headline so many of us working in this field have longed to hear.
Today, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released their annual report The State of Homelessness in America 2014 (www.endhomelessness.org). As I began to look through the report there it was – the first sentence under the Moving Forward section in the Executive Summary – Homelessness is decreasing.
A major reason for the decrease, according to the report, is because “shifts in the way communities respond to homelessness have primed the country to make great strides in ending homelessness nationally.” At this point I really became excited… decrease, great strides, ending homelessness… all in the same sentence! (Yes, I’m aware that getting excited about a statistical report makes me a bit geeky.)
Now, I know and will be the first to admit that we still have serious issues related to homelessness and so much work ahead of us. But let’s take just a moment (which is all we can afford to take knowing so many people still need help) to let those words sink in and celebrate the progress we’re making. While this is a national report, it could just as well be talking about Charlotte. Overall, homelessness is decreasing in our community. We’re making progress because our community is starting to really believe homelessness is an issue we can solve, not just one we need to manage.
At the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, we continue to see men move out of our shelter into more appropriate housing and not come back. We continue to see men increasing their income so they are no longer reliant on emergency shelter. We continue to see men reunite with their families and build back support systems that long ago caused them to seek our emergency shelter services.
Homelessness is decreasing – let’s say this together! Let’s continue to build on our successes, knowing that we’re approaching what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “tipping point,” the point when we begin to experience the end of homelessness in our community.