Op-Ed: A new approach to ending homelessness

Where will you sleep tonight? If the answer is at home, in your bed, maybe even next to someone you love, then you are more fortunate than the 550,000 Americans who will be homeless tonight. Like many of you, I am lucky to know that tonight, and many nights to come, I will have a roof over my head and a home filled with love. However, this was not always the case for my family and me. We struggled tremendously when we lost our house during the recession. I understand first-hand how quickly life can change and how easily your world can be turned upside down.

Today, I am fortunate to be a homeowner, a therapist for children and a social work graduate student at the University of Southern California. So, how did I get from such a low point in my life to where I am today? With the right support, the right programs, the right services and resources. I did not get to where I am today on my own, and neither will the 121,000 homeless children, the 39,471 homeless veterans and the remaining 389,529 rough sleepers as reported by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in November of 2016.

Many people believe that homeless individuals are not deserving of help, that they brought their hardships on themselves and that if only they worked harder, they too could succeed. However, this notion is flawed. Hard work, self-motivation and personal responsibility do not account for hardships such as death, abuse, illness and disability that one may encounter in life. Therefore, we must come together to help and support those in need of assistance.

Fortunately, our country has made an effort to help this vulnerable population. In 2016, Obama demanded almost $5.5 billion for targeted homelessness assistance programs. In California, which has the largest homeless population in the U.S., Proposition 63, known as the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), was passed to provide “Permanent Supportive Housing to homeless persons who have serious mental health disorders.” In Riverside, the local government is taking part in the “Housing First” and “Rapid Rehousing” program, which seeks to quickly move individuals off the streets and into permanent housing.

So, why is homelessness on the rise if there are resources and programs available to this population? Many of these programs fall short of ending homelessness because their approach is fragmented, too broad and assumes that “one size fits all.” However, each homeless individual is unique, with personalized needs. What may work for one individual may not work for another. A better approach to ending homelessness is to create personalized, intimate and meaningful programs that seek to help the individuals affected by homelessness.

For instance, Broadway, a non-profit organization in London, created a pilot project to test and evaluate a person-centered approach that sought to help long-term “rough sleepers.” The project took a similar approach as the MHSA did in California to help individuals with mental illnesses. The MHSA, passed in 2004, is an integrative service program that uses a “whatever it takes” approach.

The pilot project in London is similar to this proposition, but stands out for having dedicated workers who guide their clients through the program. The project was targeted at individuals experiencing chronic homelessness who “had refused standard offers of support for years.”  Outreach workers approached homeless persons and asked what they needed rather than telling them “this is what we’ve got.” This kind of approach confronts homelessness from a different angle, and is effective in gaining a person’s attention and trust. The individuals were then offered a personalized budget and long-term personalized and intensive support from a dedicated worker. In this program, support workers stay with their client through each step of the program rather than passing them from one servicer to the next, as done in most traditional programs. 13 months after the start of the project, the majority of individuals “were in accommodation or making plans to move into accommodation.” In follow-up interviews, many of the previously homeless individuals stated that the program was a positive experience and emphasized their sense of choice and control throughout the process.

This approach, which treats individuals with dignity and offers them a personalized budget alongside long-term support, is a promising one that the Riverside community should consider implementing for its 2,413 homeless individuals.

We are all aware of the ongoing homeless epidemic in our country, state, city and even in our own neighborhoods. Do not contribute to the problem by ignoring it; instead, help put an end to homelessness, so we can all sleep better at night. As you lay down to sleep in your warm bed tonight, think about how you can help. You have the power to change lives — don’t waste it.

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