HOMELESS IN AMERICA: EDUCATING, UNDERSTANDING AND VOLUNTEERING
By Caroline Ross
Homelessness affects hundreds of thousands of individuals and families in the United States Due to lack of education about this epidemic, the vast majority of the U.S. population has failed to take action to help reduce this number and improve the quality of life for all American citizens. Fortunately, private, non-profit and some government agencies are attempting to combat the problem through housing, donations, creation of jobs and mental and physical rehabilitation. By becoming educated and involved in finding remedy to the problem of homelessness, American’s will be able to change the society they live in for the less-fortunate and themselves. everyday.
Each and every night close to 600,000 men, women and children must face the idea of spending another night in the cold, without shelter or a roof over their head.
To most Americans, this scenario sounds reminiscent of one in a developing country, known only through television news or an infomercial begging for donations. In reality this situation occurs a lot closer to home – in cities and towns around the United States.
In New York City, as in much of the country, homelessness is at an all time high. In NYC as many as 30,000 people seek shelter every night due to homelessness.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to mobilize and integrate all sectors of society (nonprofit, public and private) to end homelessness.
Samantha Batko, a representative from NAEH, stressed that the organization represented a unified effort from all sectors to address the causes of homelessness.
“Homelessness is a crisis that affects between 2.3 and 3.5 million adults and children in the U.S. each year. That’s about one out of every hundred Americans,” said Batko.
In August 2005, the Census Bureau released its annual data in relation to income in the United States. While the income average continues to increase, it seems that America’s poor are falling further and further behind the national average. The data showed an increase in poverty in the past year, which even fails to take the homeless population into consideration.
Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, stated in a press release that the homeless population would only add to the negative data.
“If you include homeless persons, these numbers will only get worse,” said Foscarinis.
The causes of homelessness span a wide variety of problems that plague American society today.
According to The Institute for the Study of Homelessness at the Weingart Center, the causes of homelessness most commonly cited by researchers, government agencies and advocates are derived from the social, economic and political facets of society. Social aspects said to contribute to homelessness include mental illness and chronic health problems that worsen or are left untreated due to lack of affordable health care. The economy contributes in terms of lack of affordable housing, poverty, unemployment and low-paying jobs. Politics and the government also contribute to the epidemic with changes or cuts in public assistance, releasing prisoners back into the general population without proper resources to survive and changes in the labor market.
Michael Cole, Director of Program Services at Hudson River Housing, Inc., brought attention to not only poverty as a source and contributor to homelessness, but also a wide variety of other issues that come in to play.
“Poverty is the least common denominator, you can talk about chemical dependency, mental instability and lack of child care, but what really drives the helplessness is lack of resources, we are seeing a more and more disabled society, not only in terms of mental and chemical instability but general common chronic illness paired with a lack of insurance and health care,” said Cole.
“It is a problem that goes far beyond the panhandlers that one sees on the streets of America’s cities. It is a problem that affects youth, families, disabled persons, U.S. war veterans, individuals with mental illness, and individuals with substance abuse problems,” said Batko.
Another less obvious contributing factor to homelessness is domestic violence. Sometimes overlooked as a major epidemic, domestic violence is the second highest reason for homelessness among women. Approximately half of homeless women and children are in that situation because of domestic violence – when women are forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness.
A vast majority of the factors that contribute to homelessness stem from both the government and the way the economy is run. The U.S. government regulates everything from minimum wage to welfare to subsidized housing, which are all factors in the problem of homelessness due to the way that they are handled. The government passes or amends laws that affect the homeless population, however sometimes in a negative way.
A recent press release issued through the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) highlighted a new amendment that would make it increasingly difficult for the homeless and less economically stable to register to vote.
According to the NLCHP, “the bill could exacerbate disenfranchisement among poor and homeless persons and possibly result in fewer services for them. Homeless and low-income persons face significant barriers to voter registration and are less likely to be registered to vote than middle- and upper- income persons.”
Tulin Ozdeger, a Civil Rights Staff Attorney at the NLCHP, is in favor of the power that individual agencies have to improve this situation in addition to offering help with housing.
“Groups providing and developing affordable housing are in a unique situation to help formerly homeless people to register to vote,” said Ozdeger.
The U.S. government, although it does not often work in favor of the homeless population, is at least aware of the spending conditions within the U.S. Governments that go to a plethora of agencies everything from military to education, along with some funds to battle the homeless epidemic. Government grants do provide a small fraction of the money that is used to aid in the fight against homelessness, but with homelessness and poverty being such a problem the lines of government involvement often become blurred due to the vast majority of government agencies that could be used to aid in the reduction of poverty in America.
Linda Malave, Project Director at Hudson River Housing, stressed that the government is a contributing factor to homelessness.
“The lack of affordable housing, the lack of living wage jobs and the system of “de-institutionalization” are all contributing factors to homelessness. The U.S. government should look to facilitate changes in these areas first,” said Malave.
One of the contributing factors to the lack of funds from the government stems from the question of what exactly homelessness is. Any government faction could have a differing definition of homelessness that they abide by due to their standards or requirements. Because there is not one single definition, homelessness is dealt with in different ways by different governmental departments.
Laws and acts categorize homelessness differently than other government departments and boards. A person who is homeless in terms of the requirements or description of one act might not be covered under the qualifications of another.
Section 11302 of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act uses one of the broader definitions to encompass a good deal of people under the homeless umbrella, due to their current lack of housing.
‘A homeless person is an individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate night time residence or a person who resides in a shelter, welfare hotel, transitional program or a place not ordinarily used as regular sleeping accommodations such as streets, cars, movie theaters, abandoned buildings, etc.’
Despite the fact that acts have been passed to regulate the definition, other agencies including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rely on their own qualifications when determining factors of homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sites a homeless person as ‘a person who has no place to go, no resources to obtain housing, and is either being evicted with in a week, discharged with in a week from an institution, such as a hospital, or is fleeing domestic violence.’
Homelessness in the United States, due to the many factors that work against it, including the economy; lack of government unity in helping to curtail and improve the situation; and the overall lack of education and knowledge within the general population; continues to remain at a level that should have many people concerned.
The DOE Fund, Inc. located in New York City was founded by George McDonald when the city’s homeless crisis was reaching its peak in the late 1980’s. Elizabeth Lion, Public Relations Coordinator of The DOE Fund, Inc. urges individuals to tackle the homeless epidemic rather than blaming the problem on the government.
“The government can not and should not be expected to solve all of our social ills. The DOE Fund receives support from the federal, state and local government, but we also rely on contract revenue that we receive for the work we perform, and support from individuals who see a vast improvement in their neighborhoods and in the lives of formerly homeless mend performing that work,” said Lion.
The average American does not realize the severity of the situation. While those of middle and upper level economic standing watch the economy continue to thrive in the general scheme of the world, the homeless population is overlooked. The key to changing our societal views and fixing the problem should come primarily from education. If the people of the United States were aware of the severity of the situation, more people would be inclined to take action, both through donations and hands-on volunteer work.
“The general population must overcome the belief that homeless people are incapable of working, or that they are just too crazy or lazy to work. Once we begin understanding that homeless people are just like everyone else, in need of an opportunity to change their circumstances, we will make more progress,” said Lion.
Education is the key to the improvement of the situation: the more people that know about the problem, the more that will be willing to help. The general population, once educated, should have a vested interest in improving the society they live in whether the government chooses to provide aid or not.
“The number one answer is education about homelessness. Individuals can become more aware of the problem by getting involved at almost any level. By that I mean, one can certainly volunteer to serve a meal in a shelter to first understand what a homeless person goes through during a typical day,” said Malave.
Currently, due to the lack of education and awareness among the general population, non-profit and private organizations and agencies are at the forefront of combating homelessness. In New York and around the country private organizations through the help of donations and grants have set out to improve the living situations of those less fortunate on both small and large scale. Agencies in the northeast region of the U.S. in both urban and suburban areas have started within the past few decades.
Poughkeepsie, New York City and other cities around the country are reaping the benefits of organizations that rely on donations, man power and the good will of people to be able to help those in need. The DOE Fund, Inc. located in New York City is an example of an organization started during the height of homelessness almost two decades ago.
Founder and President George McDonald, was unable to ignore the growing problem of homelessness in the city at this time and took the approach that with a little help, the less fortunate of the city could help themselves.
According to the DOE Fund website, a mission statement was created to convey the feelings of the organization and its commitment to the community.
“The DOE Fund’s mission statement is to develop and implement cost-efficient, holistic programs that comprehensively meet the needs of a diverse homeless population. All DOE Fund programs ultimately strive to end homelessness for the individuals they serve.”
“The DOE Fund believes that paid work and personal responsibility are keys to solving homelessness. We are the only transitional job training program that pays above minimum wage and asks our participants to pay room and board, thus preparing them for the requirements of the real world,” said Lion.
From McDonald’s own experiences in the city, the DOE Fund derived a principle that the homeless are motivated to work, and they should be given the support and opportunity to do so if they are to rebuild their lives and become self-sufficient.
“We believe in treating men like men and providing dignified environments where they can become motivated to change their lives. We believe, quite simply, that ‘Work Works,’” said Lion.
The NAEH, a national non-profit organization, has taken an alternative approach to battling homelessness as well. This organization is looking towards the future to build a stronger society that will help reduce the homeless epidemic.
“That is why we have developed the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. The Ten Year Plan, which serves as the Alliance’s guiding force, identifies our nation’s current weakness in addressing the crisis of homelessness and lays out the steps necessary for out country to achieve a permanent end to the crisis within ten years,” said Batko.
In the Hudson Valley Region, one agency also chose to take an alternative approach to managing and improving the homeless situation, and thus has grown significantly since its inception in 1982. Hudson River Housing (HRH), located in the City of Poughkeepsie, started as a single homeless shelter and has since increased its size and number of people it is able to help.
The HRH, started by County Executive Lucille Pattison with the help of a group of local residents, was started to address and aid the homeless population in the Hudson River Valley, specifically the Poughkeepsie region.
Like the DOE Fund in New York City, Hudson River Housing was developed on the premise that not only should short term, nightly shelter be provided for those in need, but also a long term and stable housing environment should be created as well. HRH broke away from the idea of a quick fix by diving into the idea of subsidizing rentals and creating new housing in and around the City of Poughkeepsie.
Michael Cole, Director of Program Services at Hudson River Housing, Inc., described the growth that the organization has gone through over the past 20 years.
“We’ve done what we can, in the course of providing emergency shelter, we’ve grown as an agency - community revitalization, rehab housing, transitional housing like Hillcrest House, LaGrange House,” said Cole.
For the past decade and a half, HRH has set out to improve not only the quality of life of those less fortunate, but also the quality of the city itself. This agency adopted the idea of rebuilding and rehabilitating houses, row houses and apartments around Poughkeepsie that they could use for their organization as well as slowly improving the appearance of the city streets.
“With Hudson River Housing, although we have grown to be a mid-sized agency, we started as a grassroots organization, but we have remained very mission-driven,” said Cole.
HRH has completed a number of revitalization projects within the City of Poughkeepsie, and also has a number of projects in the works, including ones in Hyde Park and Red Hook. Starting in 1984 with the Gannett House, a 19-unit homeless shelter for families and individuals, HRH has quickly grown into the largest agency to aid the homeless in the Hudson Valley Region.
Batko, from the NAEH, stressed the importance of educating the general population especially in areas where structural changes are trying to be made.
“There can often be a lot of community resistance to the development of such housing in their neighborhoods, and having residents, who are concerned, informed and engaged when it comes to the needs of their less fortunate neighbors, can really make a difference in local efforts to prevent and end homelessness,” said Batko.
Over the years HRH merged with the Dutchess County Coalition for the Homeless and developed a Neighborhood Preservation Company. Hudson River Housing has collaborated with a number of developers and other organizations to improve the housing in the area. Beginning in 1995 the agency teamed up with the Regan Development Corporation to build homes around Poughkeepsie, which was essentially the start to the revitalization.
Almost every year since then HRH has been involved with some form of housing rehabilitation to improve the quality of life in Poughkeepsie. A project on Garden Street began in 1996 with the help of Ken Kearney, a local developer; know for his commitment to low-income housing and housing opportunities for the less fortunate.
Over the past decade, HRH has been committed to
rehabilitating houses on Mansion Street, Garden Street, Catharine Street and Mill Street.
(Pic 5 Caption) This Catharine Street building is a future site of renovation for the agency. The brick building will be made into 1-bedroom apartments.
The agencies newest project, also located in the heart of Poughkeepsie is the construction project on Conklin Street which will provide housing for 6 families upon its completion.
(Pic 9 and 10 Caption) The new Conklin Street construction is well underway and will provide housing for 6 families.
Representatives from HRH, The DOE Fund and the NAEH, could not stress enough the importance of volunteerism and getting involved. Volunteer opportunities to help those less fortunate are available around the country, especially in places affected by homelessness.
Volunteering, donating your time, money or supplies and even educating others are all key aspects in reducing and ending the homeless epidemic in the United States.
“Money is what organizations need most, although most people want to contribute in concrete ways, which is needed as well – anything from serving meals to donations like sheets and diapers to volunteering with under privileged children,” said Cole.
Lion believes that individuals should take it upon themselves to get involved and help the situation in addition to helping out already established agencies.
“Individuals should fund innovative approaches to homelessness, especially when those approaches provide a community service, like The DOE Fund’s community improvement project,” said Lion.
There are opportunities available through a multitude of organizations in the Hudson Valley Region especially through Hudson River Housing. If you are interested in direct service volunteer opportunities the NAEH recommends contacting a homeless service provider in the area.
Two directories that may be helpful are:
http://www.hud.gov/homeless/hmlsagen.cfm and http://www.nationalhomeless.org/local/local.html.
- Hudson River Housing - www.hudsonriverhousing.org
- National Alliance to End Homelessness – www.endhomelessness.org
- National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty – www.nlchp.org
- The DOE Fund Inc. – http://doe.org
- The Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty – www.weingart.org/institute