Change the way we address homelessness

Commentary By John Williams

Maybe it is time to change the way that the shelter systems are run to something that gives the men and women who stay there some responsibility for their own care. Shelters should focus on encouraging independence, which will make them more efficient facilities, promote job creation, and reduce reliance on governmental programs. 

One way this could happen is by making a pay-to-stay program. This would essentially require employed residents above a certain income percentage to pay while staying in the shelter. A pay-to-stay system would teach and reinforce an independent lifestyle for shelter residents and motivate them to seek their own residence. Further, it will make them more financially aware since they will have to budget and be responsible for making payments. Similarly, shelters should implement a work-to-stay program for unemployed, able-bodied residents. These individuals should work a certain amount of time in the shelter, a time equivalent to the average income percentage paid by the employed residents. Although not paying with currency, they are using sweat equity to gain self-sufficiency. The pay-to-stay and work-to-stay programs would both promote independence for the residents and give them transferable work skills and experience.

                To compliment the work-to-stay program, shelters should implement a school and job training program. A main issue for homeless persons is that they did not have the opportunity to graduate from high school or college, or prepare for a career. Shelters should shore up partnerships and build relationships with skilled traders’ organizations, GED programs, and institutions for higher education. This will make the shelter an advocacy group, emphasizing the importance of obtaining skills and experience in order to reduce homelessness, create autonomy, contribute to the tax base, and reduce dependence on social service programs.

                Lack of affordable housing options is one of the main reasons homelessness continues. Shelters can address this problem by purchasing housing stock (soliciting grants for rehabilitation and repair) to place shelter residents in housing. This would include individual and multi-unit structures along with complexes/apartments. So instead of shelters simply being a short-term option, they can help encourage a meaningful housing search. Similar to the work-to-stay program, shelter residents could work at these houses doing maintenance, HVAC work, landscaping, snow removal, painting, and administrative support. Shelters would have a store of available housing options, have knowledge of the location of these properties, and be able to properly place the potential renters in locations suitable to their needs. For mentally ill residents living in these homes, the shelter should establish and maintain a routine visitation, provided access and transportation to medical care, ensure that savings accounts are established, and help the individual to pick-up or receive medications.

                Shelters should also focus increasingly on preparing the residents for productive life outside of the shelter. This can be encouraged by coaching shelter residents to deal with issues that arise without staff assistance. This would teach the residents how to diffuse difficult situations so that when they are interacting with others at work or in their personal relationships, they are prepared and can self-regulate.

The current system is not working.  We need to change the way we serve people in need of housing to encourage independence.  The bottom line reason for all these programs should be to make sure that residents do not slip through the cracks because of reliance on over-burdened agencies and encourage independence.

Editor’s Note:  Williams has worked in the shelters in Cleveland for the past 13 years and was homeless in the early 1990s. 

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle August 2013 Cleveland Ohio