What do you think about when you hear the phrase “Human Rights Issue”? I think about human trafficking, suppression of civil rights, and discrimination, to name a few. But have you thought about homelessness as a human rights issue? Many people experiencing homelessness face issues of domestic violence, suppression of rights, and, yes, even human trafficking. As importantly, people experiencing homelessness need access to what we can all agree is a basic human right – a safe, decent, affordable place to live. So it makes sense to place homelessness within the context of human rights issues.
Just this week, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness posted a blog titled “3 Reasons to Address Homelessness as a Human Rights Issue.” You can find the full blog at http://USICH.gov/blog. Below I’ve quoted the gist of their posting, which I think is important for all who are concerned about homelessness to consider.
Here are three key benefits of addressing homelessness from a human rights perspective:
- Housing is a human right, and remembering that keeps stakeholders focused on helping people who experience homelessness achieve permanent housing, rather than on services that – may be well-intentioned but – do not ultimately help people exit homelessness into housing stability. Permanent housing is the primary solution to preventing and ending homelessness and the overarching strategy of Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.
- Human rights put people first. Good strategies start from understanding the unique needs of individuals, families, youth, and Veterans. A human rights approach keeps people and their needs at the forefront of our work.
- Homelessness has a human cost. Yes, ending homelessness is cost-effective for the taxpayer (doing nothing can actually cost taxpayers more money). But dollars are not the only cost of homelessness; humans experience homelessness at a horrific expense to the health and well-being of themselves and their communities. When we make the case that safe and stable housing is a human right, our cause is strengthened. We can tap into the passions, relationships, and experiences that cut across sectors — and budget sheets — to create new partnerships and solutions.
Thanks to Liz Osborn at the USICH for making such a thoughtful and compelling argument for addressing homelessness as a human rights issue. To learn more about the federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness, Opening Doors (mentioned by Liz above), please visit their website at usich.gov.
One key strategy for ending homelessness is to stop thinking about the issue as a social ill or condition. It’s a tragic human experience. It’s also a human experience we can end and prevent.
I get asked often what the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte means when we talk about moving men into more appropriate housing. Partly, I think the question stems from our desire to categorize things or fit them neatly into boxes. I get it, I have my own need for order and consistency. However, when dealing with people, we can’t do our best to serve when concerned more about classifying than understanding. So, here’s how we explain the concept of “more appropriate housing” at the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte.
First, sleeping in an emergency shelter is more appropriate than being on the streets. I think most folks will readily agree on that. Next, most other forms of housing are more appropriate than staying in a shelter. Why? Shelter must be a short intervention aimed at helping someone in crisis quickly stabilize and then move on with their lives. For too long we’ve accepted the idea that once someone is in shelter it’s a good opportunity to deal with their issues so they can then be ready for housing. Not so! More than anything, long stays in shelter rob men of their esteem, their self-motivation. We need to help them move out of the shelter as quickly and effectively as possible. This starts with locating and obtaining more appropriate housing. For example, for someone overcoming addiction, a long-term residential treatment program may be more appropriate than shelter. A group home for medically fragile Veterans may be more appropriate. Assisted living may be more appropriate. For a lot of men, an apartment of their own is more appropriate. For many, being reunited with family is more appropriate.
Yes, there must be supports in place regardless of the housing opportunity to help deal with issues when times get tough. But times get tough for all of us. And when we have a support system we are able to deal with those obstacles and move on. Same applies with moving men into more appropriate housing. Making sure they have the income to sustain their housing choice and making sure supports are in place are critical. But the first step is understanding that shelter is very temporary and most other forms of housing are more appropriate. It’s not always a neat and tidy approach, but it’s incredibly effective.
Politics aside, healthcare is broken for our most vulnerable citizens. Hundreds and hundreds of the men we serve have too little income – you heard me, too little income – to qualify for a health insurance subsidy. That’s because under the federal healthcare law they are eligible for Medicaid if the state they live in expanded Medicaid coverage. North Carolina did not and now we have a lot of citizens with serious health issues and no access to health insurance. This puts a strain on our healthcare system, even as our major hospitals spend millions of dollars on unreimbursed care. The immediate answer is to get Medicaid expansion implemented in North Carolina. Let’s have the larger conversation about whether the federal law is the right way to go, but, in the meantime, let’s not allow our citizens experiencing homelessness to suffer needlessly.
These days we so often hear the words “collaboration” and “partnership.” Everyone knows the definition of each, but what does collaboration really look like? How do you know an effective partnership it when you see it? Oftentimes, it’s not as earthshattering or complicated in its execution as you might think. To illustrate, I’ll describe the process used at the Men’s Shelter to help a lot of men find more appropriate housing. For many of our men it starts with a visit to the HERC – Housing & Employment Resource Center – which is located in our Tryon Street Campus shelter. There men are greeted by volunteers who manage the activities of the center. For example, twice each week the HERC is staffed by our volunteer partners from Charlotte School of Law. The volunteers help men start the process, filling out an apartment application, determining how they’ll use public transit, and so on. From there, MSC’s housing specialists can more efficiently get men approved and ready to move into housing. To expedite the actual move, we turn to our partners at Crisis Assistance Ministry. Through their volunteers, Crisis Assistance Ministry provides our men with furniture and takes care of the physical move into their new place. By not having to manage all of the many pieces by ourselves, MSC has been able to move more men into housing in seven months this year (339 men) versus all of last year (288). You see, effective collaborations don’t have to be complicated or highly visible, they just have to get the partners focused on the mission – in our case, ending homelessness for each man.
I admit, I’ve done it. I will probably do it again. I’ve used the phrases “homeless man”, “homeless family”, “chronically homeless”, “the homeless.” I do it out of convenience, it’s just easier than saying “a man who is experiencing homelessness.” But being easy doesn’t make it right. Turning someone into a label out of convenience, or for any reason, is hurtful. In almost every other aspect of life we are very careful not to use labels because labels are insensitive, labels devalue people, labels hurt. I don’t want to be defined by my afflictions, much less any one of my many life experiences. I’m not “Carson, he’s got high blood pressure.” I’m not “Carson, Wake Forest dropout.” Homelessness isn’t a disease, it’s an experience; an experience I cannot do justice trying to describe because I’ve never personally experienced being homeless. Yet, that’s how we too often, sometimes innocently, sometimes maliciously, describe our fellow human beings who are or have experienced homelessness. “That’s Tony, he’s homeless.” “That’s Betty, she was homeless.” “What are we doing to help the homeless?” “Who is that homeless man?” A few weeks ago, I asked my staff to lead by example, me first. I asked them to strive to use fewer labels and, therefore, extend more respect to the men – the fathers, Veterans, sons, mechanics, college graduates – who we serve because at the moment they are experiencing homelessness. So forgive me if I take a few extra seconds to forego “homeless men” to more appropriately say “men who are experiencing homelessness.” Words matter. I don’t want to be labeled and I bet you don’t either. So let’s stop labeling those in our community who are experiencing homelessness; such labels don’t define who they are, not by a long shot.