It’ll take more than housing to eradicate homelessness, say advocates

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Homelessness has been a persistent problem in the United States since the late 1970s.

Then, people who had been in mental hospitals, asylums and the like were “de-institutionalized.” Some were placed in group homes if those living near them didn’t raise too much of a ruckus. The others, lacking life skills, money or both, started showing up on city streets.

Now, those problems continue, augmented by drug and alcohol abuse, spiraling housing prices and the lifting of eviction moratoriums imposed during the start of the coronavirus pandemic two years ago.

It takes a multipronged effort to make a serious dent in homelessness, according to those who have sent much of their working lives trying to end this scourge one household, one person at a time.

“The biggest changes I’ve seen, when I started 23 years ago, homelessness was mostly older males, chronic and inebriate, riding the rails,” said Rob McCann, CEO of Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, serving the Diocese of Spokane. “Now, most of our homeless are 20 years old with significant behavior and health struggles.”

The average age of a homeless person when McCann started was 50-55. Now, it’s 22.

He said things started shifting around 2005-06, and the Great Recession of 2008 did people no favors. “It changed the landscape quite dramatically, and it’s only gotten worse,” McCann told Catholic News Service in a phone interview. “As we’re having this phone call, someone in Spokane is becoming homeless.”

Homelessness in the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California, is “one of the largest issues in the (San Francisco) Bay Area in particular,” said Jamie Lynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities in the diocese.

Holmes estimates there are about 3,000 in the diocese whom she calls “underhoused,” with two-thirds of them sleeping on “literally unsheltered hillsides,” she said.

Catholic Charities works in tandem with cities, counties and private-sector partners to address the issue. “Hospitals are a larger partner in particular here locally. Our partner Catholic hospitals have similar values and alignment around these issues,” Holmes said. “The situation is becoming more and more discussed and more and more front of mind.”

She added, “A big part of what we do is case management. We just can’t place people in a home and think it’s all better.”

Holmes said, “We are not about managing homelessness. We are about abolishing homelessness … turning 3,000 into zero. We need housing. We need to build, and we need to create housing.” The will is there, she added, but “it’s complex, especially building in California. It’s expensive, but at the end of the day, it’s much more expensive to not provide these services.”

“We serve 65,000 homeless, 460 beds a night are filled within our shelters,” said John Westervelt, CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, which serves the four counties that make up the archdiocese. “It depends on the shelter. They can stay up to 60 days, depending on the funding we get from the federal government and the Newark government.”

Catholic Charities opened a new shelter in February for 165 single men and women. It may seem like a drop in the bucket given the need. Homelessness in the archdiocese is “definitely on the rise,” Westervelt said.

“Evictions were on hold for a long time. … A lot of people who couldn’t afford to rent their apartments or housing are ending up on the streets of northern New Jersey. We’ve also seen a lot of people because of COVID; people who had minor offenses in the jail system have been released into the community as well.”

Westervelt said, “Even Newark, where it used to be cheap to live, it’s hard to find a one-bedroom rental for less than $1,600 a month. With affordable housing, he said, “you can get people off the shelter and the streets.” But that can’t be the be-all and end-all. “If you don’t have wraparound services,” Westervelt said, “they’re going to be in a real fix.”

Hope and a Home in the District of Columbia — where city officials have taken heat for ridding the streets of homeless encampments without having somewhere all those displaced can go — has had a successful track record. And a good track record means eligibility for more grants to serve more people.

The secular agency’s direction was greatly influenced by two of its early dynamos, both of whom were Mennonite, according to Rosa Mooten, its operations director.

The goal is to transition formerly homeless families into sustainable apartment living in three years, although the eviction moratorium had stretched that out to five years. But with a city mandate to include affordable housing units in new residential construction, buying a house may be possible, as each household’s plan includes squirreling away money for a down payment.

Hope and a Home starts with 20 families, a larger number than before due to its track record. Another 13 families, whom Mooten called “graduates,” are still supported with rent money by Hope and a Home, as many mothers lost their day care jobs at the start of the pandemic. “Others we connect through the education sector. We support them with college, either the adults or their children,” Mooten said. All in all, 64 families get help now.

Families set a goal, while Hope and a Home staff check in to see how they’re faring on their household budget. “By the time they leave us, they should leave with a GED. If they have a high school diploma, by the time they’re ready to leave us, they should be on a vocational trade,” she said, or if in college, they should be working on an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

But everything is easier said than done, it seems. In Spokane, the number of chronically homeless runs 500-700. “That’s a solvable, manageable problem,” McCann said. “In Seattle, where you have 5,000-7,000 on the streets, it’s much harder. There’s a way, but it’s much harder.”

In northern New Jersey, Catholic Charities’ goal is to “keep them off the drugs, keep them from being alcoholic,” Westervelt told CNS. Clientele are “mostly people who had addiction problems or alcoholism.” That, and gambling problems, breaks up the family. The dilemma there, he added, is to continue to live with a dysfunctional spouse, or break up the family and live on the street.

“We’ve ended homelessness for about 600 people every year,” said Holmes in Santa Rosa. Some of the hard part, she acknowledged, is “the complexity of the funding makes it a challenge, but we are well-versed in that and what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Then there’s the human factor. “It’s a very difficult job (for) the staff that run our shelters and the staff that provide services for homeless people. It’s probably one of the toughest jobs in the country,” said McCann in Spokane.

“It leads to a lot of compassion fatigue, where people are immersing themselves in the lives of those who are suffering,” he added. “Yet we’re blessed with 410 people who say, ‘Yeah, I want to do this. … It’s hard, it might be thankless, it might even be scary in a way.’”

But they do it, McCann said. “It’s because of our Catholic spirituality, quite frankly.”

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