Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ending Homelessness

There is a myth out there that people who are homeless are lazy bums who don't want to work to improve their lives and instead prefer to beg from strangers, drink beer all day long and sleep under bridges.

And that is indeed a fair characterization -- for oh, I don't know, about 2% of the homeless population.

Let's momentarily set those folks aside and talk about the other 98%.

The truth is, most homeless people are either (1) dealing with a serious mental or physical disorder or (2) struggling to find housing that they can afford on their low wages -- or often, some combination of the two.

If we want to end homelessness, we have to be more proactive in addressing both of these challenges.

For those who are struggling with mental illness, physical disability, or addiction, stabilizing their living situation and improving their access to quality treatment services is essential to helping them break free from homelessness.

In recent years, our community has taken big steps forward in helping the homeless to stabilize their living situations. Thanks to a good network of overnight shelter providers, we now have very few people in Charlottesville who have to sleep outside at night (especially in the winter months). What's missing is a place for people who are homeless to go during the day. Many of them now congregate in the main library downtown, at Lee Park, or along the Downtown Mall. But imagine if we had a better place for them to go -- a place where they could get out of the elements and have access to showers, mailboxes, a phone, computers, laundry facilities, storage lockers, referrals for overnight shelter, etc. And better yet, imagine if that place also provided on-site access to the quality services that they need to break out of homelessness and get back on their feet -- employment and housing resources, mental health services, AA meetings, veterans' benefits, job training and personal finance classes, etc.

John Yellig does an admirable job in today's Daily Progress of explaining the goals of a proposed community resources center in downtown Charlottesville that would be such a place (click here for the article).

If this project comes together the way its organizers envision, it will be a tremendous asset for our entire community. For people who are already congregating in the downtown area during the day, it will give them a more appropriate place to go. For people who are homeless and are not the "lazy bums" of myth, it will give them access to the services they need to better their lives.

In sum, it gets us precisely...halfway...to where we need to be.

I say "halfway" because there's a critical "Part 2" that needs to happen next. And that involves ensuring that we have a sufficient supply of permanent housing that people who are at the lower rungs of our economic ladder can access and afford. For the homeless, in other communities that often takes the form of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing -- small efficiency units that formerly-homeless people can rent, often with support services provided on-site to keep them stable in their housing. Virginia Supportive Housing has been a real leader in developing housing like this in Richmond and Norfolk, and the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH) is currently working with the Piedmont Housing Alliance and the Salvation Army to develop housing like this in Charlottesville.

It may be a stretch to say that "ending homelessness is not rocket science." It is, indeed, a very difficult proposition. But we know what's worked elsewhere and we know what more we can be doing here. Ultimately, our goal should be to put groups like PACEM out of business. Sleeping on a cot in a church basement is better than sleeping next to a garbage dumpster behind the Lucky Seven, but it pales in comparison to sleeping in your own bed in your own room -- something which far too many of us take for granted each and every day.

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p.s. Just in case anyone is wondering, the newspaper article mentions that Compass Day Haven will need a special use permit from the City in order to operate a daytime shelter at the First Christian Church building. Just as I abstained when City Council approved a small grant to Compass earlier this year, I will be abstaining on the vote for their special-use permit as well. I am not legally obligated to do so -- I am neither employed by Compass nor have any financial stake in Compass -- but wish to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

1 comment:

Stan, the homeless vet said...

Ending homelessness? Homelessness is big business. All the poverty pimp keep the homeless homeless! No more forced 12 step religion. No more group. No more life skills (how to boil water). Real housing, real job training (community college). Sorting clothes at Goodwill is NOT job training , it's slave labor.