(editor’s note: this essay that appeared under the Keynoter’s Other Voices banner was written by SHAL Executive Director John Miller)

Housing needs to be followed up with services

By John Miller

Is it true that your typical homeless person is just a drunk, living off of handouts and drinking to oblivion each night? When I started working with homeless persons 20 years ago, we often explained that the average homeless person wasn’t that at all. It was a fourth grader.

Homeless persons have failed to pull their own weight, failed to meet society’s requirements, failed society altogether. Right? Or maybe, society has failed them.

We’ve always had homeless people in America. For centuries. It’s just part of our civilization, right? No.

Homelessness as a prevalent problem began around 40 years ago, when the “Community Mental Health” movement began and many thousands of patients were released from our substandard mental hospitals onto the streets to fend for themselves. Soon larger groups of the unemployed, the unhealthy, substance abusers and others joined the tide, and “street people” became a common sight in our urban and non-urban areas.

Over-strapped, Spartan “shelters” were set up, warehousing humans who just couldn’t cut it.  The attitude was that they should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job. Find a house. Rejoin society. But this is very hard to do when you’re hungry, or poor, or tired. Or if you’re a crime victim or a domestic violence victim. Or if you’re unskilled, or sick, or mentally ill, or on probation.

And there is rarely a helping hand to get you back on your feet. Few resources. And some in society may like to assuage any responsibility for the situation with the old saw that this is what people want.

But no one wants to be homeless. It’s a violent, frightening, life-threatening, painful and uncomfortable existence—especially in the Keys. Imagine walking a mile or more to use the bathroom, walking everywhere in the blistering sun, with insect bites and loss of dignity to punctuate your day. There is little support for health or comfort. And tomorrow might just be the same.

The Services First approach used for decades argued that the very limited resources wouldn’t be effective until a person had totally stopped drinking and taking drugs. Giving people assistance just made them dependent. Members of general society with no experience with homelessness and their particular list of problems just knew that “these people” won’t “get well” until they learn to provide for themselves and become self-sufficient.

But overcoming personal demons, getting back to health, obtaining necessary skills or escaping predators can be nearly impossible for most people while living on the street or in an institutional setting. Services First has become increasingly expensive, ineffective and sometimes even exacerbates the problem.

We know the obvious cure for homelessness. The cure has a 100% effective rate. It’s housing.

That’s the good news. The better news is that housing someone first, and following up with needed services, called Housing First, is cheaper, more effective, and works right away! It is the industry’s best practice and works 90% or more of the time according to studies. It lowers the populations in the jails, courts and the emergency rooms. It helps clean the city streets and the residential neighborhoods. It lowers homelessness. And it is the humane way for a caring society to proceed. It’s a hand up, not a handout.

The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League has operated the homeless shelter on Stock Island for over 6 years with a small staff that works to address homelessness one client at a time. SHAL case managers work hard to get clients healthcare, employment, identity documents, and counseling. The shelter staff works hard to provide a clean, safe, overnight rest; a hot shower; and a couple hot meals a day.

And if the Keys turn out to be an unsustainable place for someone to become self-sufficient, SHAL sometimes works to provide a bus ticket to a better location. SHAL is a nonprofit and accepts donations of items (clothing, washers & dryers) and clothing and cash to support our clients’ needs that may be tax deductible.

And while the majority of Shelter residents are very short-term, we do work very hard and cost effectively with hundreds of clients each year to get them the hand up they need. Because no one wants to be homeless.

John Miller is Executive Director of the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League, which operates the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter on Stock Island. After a career in business management, John Miller has been running nonprofits for the past 20 years, with a focus on housing and homelessness.