Addressing homelessness is a worthy challenge for us all

Our gentle autumnal slide toward winter has been pleasantly balmy for the most part, but the few tru

Our gentle autumnal slide toward winter has been pleasantly balmy for the most part, but the few truly frigid nights we’ve had are about to become the norm rather than the exception.

Those of us with a secure roof over our head need not fear being left out in that cold. However, for the far too many lacking such security, things are about to go from unbearably difficult to alarmingly life threatening.

Schenectady received White House recognition last month for its laudable and — at least for the moment — successful effort to ensure housing for homeless veterans as part of a national cooperative initiative.

The federal program coordinates with local government and community-based agencies like the Schenectady Municipal Housing Authority and Bethesda House.

An Expanding Problem

One cannot overemphasize the importance of ensuring shelter for our veterans. But it is an unfortunate fact that veterans are only one tiny subset of our homeless, who come from a far wider and more diverse population than one might first believe.

Mental illness grips some; drugs and alcohol get others. Abusive parents or spouses, poor financial decisions and simple bad luck sink a good many more.

This is a problem that is growing, not shrinking, which is evident wherever one goes. Its visibility challenges all of us and instills conflicting feelings and motivations — resentment, sympathy, an urge to assist and an urge to avoid — all at once.

We feel compelled to “help” the street-corner panhandler by placing a dollar in that cup or outstretched hand. At the same time, we can feel justified in ignoring that hand in the honest and often well-founded belief that the money only would be used to enable and reinforce that person’s dysfunctional circumstances.

Frustration and, yes, insensitivity and disdain often lead to public demands to make the problem “disappear.” But any presumed solution that involves just reducing the problem’s visibility inevitably fails.

Because the issue is so complex and challenging, there is a range of philosophies, systems and programs that have been developed and tried with varying degrees of success and failure.

Successful approach

Housing First is one approach that has achieved significant success where it’s been used. Its simple philosophy is that the best way to end homelessness is to find people homes.

There are those in need of temporary shelter — youths sleeping in their cars until they land a job or families evicted after a job loss, for example.

Rapid Re-Housing is one of the concepts that targets individuals and families who fell on hard times. It gives them temporary assistance to get back on their feet by finding them permanent housing and paying the rent, deposit and utilities until they find work and save money — usually three to six months. Then the residents take over all costs associated with the home.

Then there is chronic homelessness, which for many — over time and in combination with their other underlying issues — becomes almost a “normal” state to them. They get so accustomed or acclimated to their circumstance that it actually becomes psychologically difficult for them to detach from it.

Permanent Supportive Housing, by contrast, targets these entrenched homeless, the ones who are most visible to the community and at the heart of the conundrum. It places individuals in their own permanent residences and pays a majority of the costs associated with that housing for as long as the person lives there.

Cultural attitude

However, Housing First runs up against our highly individualized culture that believes too often and too generally that one’s misfortunes are entirely one’s own fault.

“Shouldn’t the homeless have to play by the same rules governing the rest of us. You want money? Work for it. You want a house? Pay for it. We’ll help you get there, but we’re not going to just give it to you!”

In an ideal world, that logic is sound. But it quickly disintegrates on the street. The problem is not merely individual in nature, either.

The lack of affordable housing is a serious problem in large cities and a growing one in smaller cities and suburban areas like those in the Capital Region.

A home is not just a physical space. It provides roots, identity, security, a sense of belonging and a place of emotional well-being.

Not having a home fosters an anxiety that only further fuels any underlying personal — and socially expensive — issues that already make it difficult to extricate oneself from a vicious cycle.

From experience, we know that there are a number of reasons why homelessness might never be completely eradicated.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be pursuing it more vigorously as a worthy objective that is especially fitting for this society — during this or any other season.

John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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