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.
For many the impending fiscal cliff isn’t all that important. That’s because so many of our most vulnerable citizens went off the cliff years ago. The recession that came about in 2008 continues to push people off the cliff. Failed mental health reform continues to push people over the cliff. Inadequate discharge planning for people coming out of prison continues to push people off the cliff. For those who already fell, climbing back up the cliff is often an impossible feat when facing such daunting obstacles as high unemployment, lack of jobs, low paying jobs, and not enough community support. How can one expect not to fall off the cliff when they’re teetering on the edge with no safety harness? How can one climb back out of despair when they face an impenetrable mountain without even a rope? These are hard questions made harder by the realization that we’re talking about actual human beings – not statistics but parents, teachers, bus drivers, waitresses, and children.
But all is not hopeless. In Charlotte, we have an incredible faith community. We have strong civic and philanthropic leadership. We have a strong network of non-profits that work together behind the scenes more than anyone will ever know. I think we’ll hit our stride in 2013. I’m optimistic about our collective ability to solve the challenges our community faces. At the very least, I believe that the last several years have taught us how to be prepared for the cliff. We all know we have to be in it together because for our community to succeed those among us struggling the most have to be given an opportunity to succeed as well.