We have experienced an interesting time of reflection this month – between the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty and the 85th birthday of Martin Luther King, which caused us to remember and reflect on 50 years of the Civil Rights Movement. The reflection will continue as we celebrate the July 2nd enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Have we made progress or, even more poignantly, have we made the right progress? Statistics are mixed – the poverty gap between blacks and whites is improving, but the employment rate is not. The poverty rate has improved in 50 years, but not much. We have accomplished a lot, but still have work ahead of us to truly realize our collective Dream of equality and to win the War on Poverty.
It is not a surprise that these reflections carried over into the Beyond Housing: A National Conversation on Child Homelessness and Poverty produced by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) and led to productive discussions on where to go next.
Unfortunately, one of our biggest problems is our image of homelessness. When you ask average people about the homeless, they think of the chronic homeless adult asking for change on the side of the road. They do not realize that one-third of those who use shelters are parents and their children, according to ICPH. And, it is the children who suffer the most from family homelessness.
As a result, funding for homelessness has focused on single adults and not on solutions for families who are homeless. In fact, one of the recent changes in funding came from a new strategy called “Rapid Rehousing/Housing First,” which on its face makes sense – “move families immediately from shelters into permanent housing.” However, many advocates are concerned that this strategy lacks a true understanding of the root causes of the homelessness and uses housing as a silver bullet to solve all of them. It creates what is known as the “the law of unintended consequences.” The good news is that we actually have some insight into what might happen based on research of New York City’s Rapid Rehousing effort, which started in 2005. ICPH did some great analysis. It basically shows that Rapid Rehousing worked for some families, but it failed more than half of the families and might have cost taxpayers more in the long-run. It also showcases that “one size fits all policies for addressing homelessness do not work.”
While we are not researchers or political scientists, we do follow trends and believe that leaders can prevent some of these unintended consequences through the following:
- Storytelling: We need to do a better job of telling the true story of the homelessness and why it is important to all Americans to address the issue. We are encouraged by the data being collected state-by-state by ICPH and others. We are also encouraged by how agencies, such as Marian House in Baltimore, are using storytelling as a way to bring these sobering statistics to life.
- Investment: Homelessness is the most extreme form of poverty and impacts every social issue. However, we need to be able to address this in terms that policymakers and taxpayers understand – dollars and cents. We have to better illustrate the social and financial return on investment for programs addressing homelessness, especially family homelessness. One of the best moments of the entire conference was hearing from an accomplished female adult, Nikki Johnson Huston, who grew up homeless say – “All of you as taxpayers invested in me and I think I was a damn good investment.” And, she should know – she is now a tax attorney!
- Collective Impact: Many communities want to “end homelessness” and this is a good goal, but we need to be clear on what this means. We must work together as social sector – our mission should not be to just “get them off the streets, but instead we need to get them back on their feet.” And, that is a great goal, but will require the collective energy of many service providers and community leaders working together as well as multiple solutions to tackle different circumstances.
Chances are when we talk about poverty or race or homelessness it brings out a range of emotions, like it did for us. In each case, we have made progress. However, we have all failed if we don’t learn from the past and use what we have learned to create a better future for all of us. We must not be afraid of tackling tough issues, choosing “progress over niceness,” and taking risks on behalf of those we serve.
As we celebrate LBJ and MLK this month, we also encourage you to celebrate the nameless individuals who work every day on these issues and often don’t get enough of our praise. We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into an issue that interacts with almost all other issues and we welcome your opinions on this topic or any other.