Spotlight Exclusives

February 23, 2009: Treating Homelessness for the Long Term, By Scott Schenkelberg, Executive Director, Miriam۪s Kitchen

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“Ironic” isn۪t a term often used to describe the recent inauguration of Barack Obama. But it was, in my opinion.

Despite the event۪s prevailing message of diversity and inclusiveness, there was one population that was left out: the homeless.

To ensure a safe inauguration, many of DC۪s streets were closed, fences were erected around the Mall, and security sweeps were made throughout the city. While these measures were an inconvenience for many of us who work in the nation۪s capital, they were devastating for the homeless men, women, and children who call those areas home. The places where they sleep parks, bridges, and streets downtown were swept “clean” to ensure security; but, perhaps more insidiously, they were swept to present a “clean” image of America۪s capital to rest of the world: one that doesn۪t include desperate poverty and grinding need.

These men and women were forced to abandon their homes and belongings in a way that none of us with more conventional homes would have tolerated. While we may not like thinking of their homes as the city۪s streets and parks, they are. And they were ordered to leave those homes and spend the night before inauguration in a shelter.

Some might say that this seems like humane, if not generous, treatment for folks who don۪t receive this kind of service every day. The city۪s ten shelters are not normally open all day. And the city doesn۪t usually provide free storage for men and women who have no place else to keep their worldly possessions. But they did for inauguration. And perhaps did it in an effort to hide the image of DC۪s growing homeless population.

Just like any of us have our routines, so too do those who are homeless. Where they sleep, where they eat, and where they go for services are all part of their routine. But those are a much bigger part of their lives than just being a routine, they are methods of survival. By uprooting our homeless neighbors from their homes and taking away their possessions, we negatively impacted their livesand their chances of surviving.

This may all seem perplexingthe city gave them shelter, warmth, and food during one of the coldest days of the year. How does that negatively impact them? On its face, it all seems fair. But when you consider that many of these men and women were shipped off to shelters on the outskirts of the city, that shuttles to and from the shelters were suspended on the day of the Inauguration, and that they had no access to their belongings, it begins to take on a different appearance.

Unfortunately, these injustices aren۪t limited to inauguration day. They happen every day in cities across America. The “cleansing” of the city on inauguration day is emblematic of the little consideration that is given to the trials and tribulations of people living on the streets. Rather than looking at them as a temporary blight on the American cityscape, it is time we addressed them as a population that isn۪t going away.

We need to lower barriers to services for the homeless and reach out to those in need, instead of waiting for them to come to us and making it difficult for them to receive services when they finally find us. Both the expunging of the homeless from downtown DC during the inauguration and the persistent treatment of homelessness as a temporary crisis with a fixed solution is insidious because it allows us to become complacent. We can۪t think of homelessness as temporary; we have to think long term.

We here at Miriam۪s Kitchen believe that much like hospitals serving sick patients, agencies like ours serving homeless men and women will continue to exist. They will have to. As advocates for our guests, we believe that homelessness is not going away. Therefore, we need to focus on providing the best services for those who experience homelessness on a regular basis.

The thought that homelessness isn۪t a solvable problem will rankle many who are very well intentioned. Certainly, there are things we can do to help alleviate many of the problems associated with homelessness. Cities and organizations can invest more in permanent housing, make mental health and addiction treatment services more readily available, and provide basic income supports to those living on limited means. However, there are two strikes against ending homelessness through these reformsthe laws surrounding how those with persistent mental illness are engaged in treatment and the ongoing cycle of homelessness that those who find themselves newly homeless inevitably fall into.

The current laws surrounding how those who have severe and persistent mental illness are engaged in treatment are in part born out of the civil rights movement. Concurrent with the closing of state mental hospitals, patients۪ rights also changed to rightly allow patients a say in their treatment. These laws counteracted the abuse that many patients faced in a mental health system that effectively held them as prisoners throughout their lives. Now, unless you are endangering yourself or others, you cannot be treated against your will. This high litmus test comes with a caveat, though: those who are held forcibly may only be held for 72 hours, after which an administrative hearing is held to determine whether the patient is meeting this standard for hospitalization. In three days, many patients have stabilized to a point that they no longer meet this standard, and they are released. For many of these patients, this means they are released to the streets. Unfortunately, this often begins the cycle of moving from hospital to street to jail and back again. And no matter how well constructed our safety net is for these patients, some are going to fall through it.

So what can we do?

By treating homelessness as a permanent need rather than a temporary crisis, we can build lasting institutions to serve these men and women. What are needed are downtown spaces that aggregate numerous services for those who are homeless. Instead of asking those with the least ability to travel to go numerous places for services, we should be working to consolidate services and make them geographically accessible. Service providers of all stripesmental health professionals, addictions counselors, attorneys, medical doctors, job counselors, public benefits agencies, life skill coaches, and housing providers should all be available in these centers to meet people where they are rather than making them travel.

Permanent service centers such as this also allow people to develop trust in service providers. Creating a warm and inviting environment with competent professionals and caring volunteers goes a long way to convincing vulnerable people to take the next step to recovery. It is only through long-term commitment not measured in weeks and months, but in years and decades that we can start to deal with the persistent needs of those who are homeless.

The inauguration swept away homelessness in DC for a few days, but it is time we faced the reality that homelessness isn۪t a temporary problem with a fixed solution. It is a fixture in American society that deserves long-term solutions for long-term needs.

Scott Schenkelberg is Executive Director of Miriam۪s Kitchen, a homeless services provider in Washington, DC. Each year, they provide healthy meals, comprehensive case management services, therapeutic groups, and transitional housing to more than 4,000 homeless men and women

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