I believe that our society looks at problems like homelessness the same way the Captain of the Titanic looked at the iceberg: we both concentrate on the most visible — not necessarily the biggest or most devastating — part of the problem.
Like that captain, I believe we see only the part of social problems we’re looking for – the part we need to do nothing but steer our way around.
In focusing on so-called homeless bums, we don’t see those trying not to be seen, those too little to be seen, and those who haven’t yet seen how badly the odds stack against them.
Looking in that direction also helps avoid situations literally much closer to home — things like job loss, family break up, health problems or “unexpected catastrophes” like domestic violence, which researchers identify as trigger factors making homelessness increasingly likely for those already living on limited resources – economic, educational and otherwise.
Considering the prevalence of those trigger factors in a society where most people can’t afford to miss even a single paycheck and the personal savings rate last year was less than 0%, I believe that it is a testimonial to human resilience, the compassion of our families, friends, and communities that only 1% of our country’s population are homeless at any given time.
Given the trauma associated with such devastating experiences, I believe it should not be so shocking that a Stanford University Medical School study found that mental health and substance abuse problems as often a consequence as they are a cause of homelessness.
As this crisis now enters its third decade, I believe it’s no coincidence that one of the primary federal agencies leading nation’s response is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I believe that F.E.M.A. approaches solutions to homelessness the same way a homeless person seeks their next meal – something immediate but not necessarily nutritious or cost effective. I believe that stuffing troubled people into crowded overnight shelters guarantees that those who most need help are least likely to get it; they are instead prone to end up in hospitals, jails and foster care at costs much higher than the amount we allegedly couldn’t afford to spend on earlier intervention strategies.
Finally, I believe that someday soon one of those government reports that prove the perfectly obvious will finally document once and for all that ignorance is the leading cause of stupidity.
In the case of homelessness, I believe that such a study would show how transitional housing programs have proven effective in helping the many who want to help themselves, but in most cities such programs have one bed available for every two people who need it. Contrary to the myth that these programs ruin neighborhoods, this report would present available research that instead shows how, in fact, property values rise after programs arrive. And I believe that such a report would remind us that while we cannot give anyone dignity, we indeed can show everyone respect.
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