Forming a Social Safety Net: Answering the Calls by Homeless People

 By Beth Ann Gaglione

            Many signs tell us that we have a homeless program larger than we would ever want to believe.  However, we continue to hide from the problem with food drives and coat collections.  When will we stop believing in the myth that we can cure hunger with our canned goods and move on to providing solutions that really work?

            The homeless myth our society lives with allows us to simplify a complex problem.  It is a way of looking at the world, being the determinant of meaning.  What we need to do is order to look at the world in a more realistic sense is to challenge the myth.

            I am not suggesting that we stop giving what we can to help the homeless through a transitional period.  I do believe that our charitable donations are well needed.  And by no means am I suggesting the same kinds of solutions that Representative Newt Gingrich has recently announced, which include cutting most of the funding programs designed to help the impoverished, therefore leaving it up to community people whom, he says, “know best” how to solve their problems.

            What I am suggesting is that we, as a society, stop thinking that our McDonald’s gift certificates are going to end hunger and that our old coats will keep 300,000 people warm at night.  Knowing that institutional change is incremental, we cannot wait for our lawmakers to come up with solutions.  If we do, they will probably only provide the same

Kinds of “band-aid” solutions the Bush/Reagan years provided to our homeless population.

            We need to form a social net for people who will inevitably fall through the cracks of the system.  To do that, we need to identify why we let people fall through the cracks in the first place.  In addition, we must identify the problems that the homeless and potential homeless population endures.    Finally, we need to examine the kinds of programs that work and consider ideas that will begin building the social net.

            The biggest mistake we have made in approaching homelessness in binding ourselves to the fact that individuals have individual needs.  Therefore, we must build a system in which each person can receive the individualized attention (in order to address his or her) problems.  In order to identify changes needed, we should understand the true needs of a homeless person.

            Social scientists have been able to agree upon three major problems that individuals within the homeless population may at one time suffer from.  Preeminently, at least 30 percent of our homeless population suffers from various forms of extreme mental conditions.  However, most also agree that the state of homelessness itself causes mental dilapidation.

            Homeless people run an extremely high risk of abusing alcohol or drugs, regardless of whether they suffer from mental disorders.  According to research done by

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 20 to 45 percent of the homeless population suffers from alcohol-related problems.  Alcoholism and drug abuse was seen as the only cause of homelessness in the 1040s when indigents were seen as “drunk men.”  Now, alcohol abuse affects men, women, and adolescents on our city streets. 

            The scarcity of low-cost housing leaves poor people with only one option of housing: to become a renter.  If a household living on $5,000 a year to spend 3- percent a month on housing, they would only be able to allot $125 per month to housing.  In reality, the typical poor renter spent $266 a month on their housing needs, more than double the highest amount affordable according to HUD.  Not only are these people supposed to overcome mental and physical ailments, but they must be fiscal geniuses in order to survive on $5,000 a year.

            Mental illness, alcohol abuse and scarce low-cost housing are far from the only problems that a homeless must face.  However, the social service community concerned with homelessness seems to agree that these three issues are the most prevalent among homeless people.

            The cause of homelessness are a phenomenon of the changes taking place in America society which have left many individuals without the family and community support systems on which they have relied heavily on in the past.  For this reason, “the problem must be viewed as defying immediate solution but is one which commands community-wide effort over a long period of time” (momeni, 1990.p178).  We must provide the impoverished with social services net dispensing preventative measures, programs that work, and an attitude toward the problem that reflects an understanding of the true meaning of homelessness.  If care-providers have already bought into the myth that we must give the coats off our backs as the only solution, then we have already failed.

            In order to put an end to homelessness, we must shatter the myth.  The myth says that the only way we can really help the homeless is to give to others, as we would want for ourselves.  However, we have already defined the problems as too severe for any food drive to fix.  We need to realize there are many other things we need to do as a society that would be more beneficial than charitable service efforts.  Changing people’s attitudes could be a first step.

 Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine Issue 10 – May – July 1995