Homelessness and housing

A broader understanding

When you hear the phrase homeless person, who do you picture in your mind’s eye? I tend to think first of an older man, staying in shelters or sleeping on the streets, who has been without stable housing for a long time. Perhaps he also struggles with either mental illness or addiction.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) would categorize the person I’m thinking of as “chronically homeless.” The coalition points out that while we tend to think of people who’ve become entrenched in the shelter system first when we consider homelessness, people who are chronically homeless are a much smaller percentage of those who are homeless than people who are transitionally homeless.

People who are transitionally homeless generally use the shelter system for one short period. They’re likely to be younger and have become homeless because of a catastrophic event. The NCH explains that over time, “transitionally homeless individuals will account for the majority of persons experiencing homelessness given their higher rate of turnover.”

When we consider housing for persons who are homeless, it’s also important to remember individuals and families who may have a place to stay tonight but who don’t have stable housing for the future. For example, a high school student who was kicked out of her home after telling her parents that she is lesbian may be able to stay with a friend for a few days. However, if she doesn’t know where she can stay next week, she’s still homeless.

What’s the best way to ensure housing for groups of people who have such different needs? The National Alliance to End Homelessness suggests that while placing people who are homeless in shelters often seems like the least costly route to take, research has shown that the cost of homelessness is high for communities. That’s because people who are homeless tend to need the most costly health-care services, such as emergency room visits. Data also shows that people who are without housing tend to spend more time in jail, often for violating laws related to loitering, sleeping in cars, or panhandling.

Permanent supportive housing

Recognizing that the shelter system has unintentionally come to serve as long-term housing for many people who are chronically homeless, growing numbers of service providers are advocating for what’s called permanent supportive housing. This model assists people who have serious health issues such as mental illness or HIV/AIDS by combining housing with supportive medical services.

Moore Place, an apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina, is one such example of permanent supportive housing. 55-year-old Michael Byrd, who lives at Moore Place and is disabled, says that the year before he moved in, he visited the emergency room 24 times for various illnesses. “When I was living on the streets, my worst night was trying to sleep bundled up in an abandoned car when it was below freezing. It scared me,” Moore said. During his first year of living in his apartment at Moore Place, he only visited the emergency room five times. His life is now stable enough that he’s dreaming of picking up his childhood hobby of fishing.

A study by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte of Moore Place’s costs found that its work saved $1.8 million in its first year through major reductions in emergency room visits as well as a 78-percent drop in arrests among residents.

In Austin, Texas, the Community First! Village is combining microhomes to house homeless individuals with on-site behavioral and medical services. Residents share common spaces like bathrooms and kitchens, which founder Alan Graham describes as a way to cultivate community among those who live there. Those who live at Community First! Village pay a rent of $225–$360, which most cover either through government benefits or by working in the village.

Housing assistance

Jennifer Carter of Midvale, Utah, knows the challenge of raising children while living in a homeless shelter. According to an NPR article from last December, she had to quit her job answering phones when her work hours were changed to evenings and her childcare costs became unaffordable. She was soon evicted from her apartment. While living at the shelter keeps them off the streets, it’s been hard on Carter’s children. The shelter is so loud that they don’t get much sleep. Soon, however, Carter hopes to be able to move into an apartment through a program called Rapid Re-Housing.

Rapid Re-Housing aims to get families out of shelters and back into permanent housing quickly so that the negative consequences of homelessness can be minimized. Typically, these programs provide families with enough funds for the security deposit and short-term assistance with rent.

While many housing advocates believe that Rapid Re-Housing is a more effective approach than transitional apartments, they also caution that rising housing prices throughout the country could threaten its effectiveness. “A better solution would be to have more longer-term rental subsidies,” says Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “But we don’t have them. So rapid rehousing is better than leaving people in the shelter.”

The Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly known as Section 8 vouchers) assists very low-income families with renting private apartments and has been shown to be effective in preventing a return to homelessness. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one study showed that among families who left homeless shelters with a voucher, 80 percent were still in stable housing three years later. Of the families who left shelters without a voucher, only 18 percent were in stable housing after three years. Because of a lack of funding, only one in four Americans who are eligible for the voucher program receives assistance.

God’s radical hospitality

Laura Stivers, ethics professor and author of Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches, says that the problem of homelessness isn’t simply about finding a place for people to sleep at night. Instead, she suggests, it’s “a reflection on our collective identity as a people and a society. Jesus challenged those who tried to limit the seats at the banquet table and offer crumbs rather than abundant loaves.”

When we consider how the church can respond to homelessness, perhaps most important is this vision: It’s not normal for some of our brothers and sisters to have no place to call home. God’s radical hospitality, in which God’s people are called to share their bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into their houses (Isaiah 58:7), calls into question our culture’s complacency over homelessness.

Stivers urges people of faith to be part of building a social movement that addresses the root causes of homelessness: poverty and inequality. “So many of our Christian responses,” she says, “while hospitable in intent, do not challenge institutional inequality and oppression.” Where congregations do take on charitable assistance to people who are homeless, Stivers says that people of faith must begin by learning what life is like for people who are homeless so that we can treat them with dignity and respect as we minister with them.

Through our advocacy for more just policies, through our compassionate listening, and through sharing God’s abundance, people of faith can disrupt the cycle of homelessness. Homelessness is a solvable problem, and the church must be part of finding its solutions.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus