Is Bigger Better
The HomewardBound Shelter is filled beyond capacity every night of the year.
Now plans are underway to build a larger facillity for its residents...but
Is Bigger Better?
At 32 Vicky (not her real name) is already an old woman. Most of her teeth are missing. She seldom showers. Her sweatpants, once gray, are stained with menstrual blood. At one time Vicky was an attractive and popular young woman. But in her early 20's she began to show the signs of an increasingly severe mental illnes. Around the same time she discovered she liked Meth, and because men liked her they gave it to her and lots of it. The drugs predictablly made her even more unstable, ending her long term relationship to a man she she had lived with since she was 19. By her mid-20's Vicky was a homeless, mentally ill, drug addicted, and a prostitute.
Vicky's not on drugs anymore. I'm told she hasn't been for a couple of years. One story goes that she quit after a dope dealer suspicious that she was co-operating with the Meth task force poisoned her with a shot of Draino. Whatever happened she quit dope, doesn't even smoke cigarettes now. If that's a major improvement I can't tell. She still sees people who aren't there, hears voices no one else can, has whole conversations with the empty air. She's lost two children to the government so far. There's no chance she will ever be able regain custody of them.
By all rights Vicky should be recieving Social Security disability benifits and be in an assited living program for people with major mental health issues. The fact that she is not illustrates what is wrong with a "one size fits all" approach to homeless services that warehouses the homeless in shelters for a fixed period of time after which they are expected to have achieved self-sufficiency. The most vulnerable of the homeless will never achieve self-sufficiency. In an economy where the congress has been forced to repeatedly extend unemployment benifits for up to 2 full years you don't need to be as disfunctional as Vicky to remain homeless for an extended period time either.
Here in Grand Junction the HomewardBound shelter is without a doubt one of the nicer facallities of its kind in the United States. Many of our nation's shelters are crowded, filithy, and dangerous places. By contrast HomewardBound facillity is clean and safe. While many shelters offer residents services for an extremely limited period of time (in Durango it's 14 days), HomewardBound offers its services to residents for a full 180 days and provides year round services. HomewardBound offers a full range of services as well from case management, to storage for people's belongings, to boarding for your dog. The food is good too. residents frequently dine in the evenings on such delicacies as broiled fish with shrimp, roasted pork loin, and cheesecake. They also do a very nice breakfast. The only problem is that many of the same people take up the beds year after year, going back to live in the bushes, the jail, or the prison after their 6 months are up.
The federal government has acknowledged the problem and is increasingly focused on addressing the issue of what Housing and Urban Developement calls "chronic homelessness". But the scope of the problem itself is the result of public policy choices spanning the past 30 years that have resulted in millions of Americans living in the street. Policy decisions from the push to "get tough on crime" that resulted in a 546% increase in the number of drug offenders imprisoned in the US between 1985-2000 (Mauer, "Race to Incarcerate"), to the deinstitutionalization of large numbers of severly mentally ill people unable to care for themselves into the street under Regan, to "welfare reform", a euphenism for the federal government ending 61 years of cash assistance to the poor, under Clinton, all contributed to large numbers of people being left without a place to live. During the 90's the federal government also ended prisoners access to higher education while in custody, banned convicted felons from public housing, barred ex-convicts convicted of drug offenses from recieving food stamps. The list goes on...and on.
The fact is that whether policy makers build housing or build prisons poverty costs money. Of those who are, like Vicky, chronically homeless HUD in its 2007 report on issue (Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research) estimates as many as 60% may be mentally ill. As many as 80% have had lifelong drug and alcohol problems. Three out of four are men, and many are veterans. HUD found an astounding 82% of homeless men and 52% of homeless women are ex-offenders. One in four ex-offenders in Colorado will parole homeless, many after serving long sentences, and most will return to custody repeatedly at ennormous cost to the taxpayers. Simply building more and larger shelters in order to warehouse ever more people can only serve to manage a crisis that has been ongoing for 30 years. In fact the shelter system itself may perpetuate the very problem it was created to address.
In a piece in the New York Times entitled "What’s Wrong With Homeless Shelters" (NYT June 8, 2009) qoutes an essay by online columnist SlumJack Homeless, a former property manager. In his essay "Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter" SlumJack argues that homeless shelters hinder everyone housed there in an effort to curb substance abusers and criminals, so they are a waste of time for people trying to network a way out of their predicament. “SlumJack” writes that shelters force residents to follow early-evening curfews and thus waste many hours unproductively (“imprisonment with some of the worst people”) when they could otherwise be networking outside“going around the corner for a coffee in a cafe and looking for work or some other way to earn money using the Wi-Fi.” He concludes that “The ‘solution’ IS the ‘problem,’ it's a familar refrain. Even the nicest shelter is still a form of low-intensity incarceration, and many aren't very nice at all. As far back as the 1980's popular mass movements formed in cities accross the country to sieze and occupy abandoned buildings for similar reasons. We would do well to ask ourselves, "if the existing system niether meets the needs of people like SlumJack who are high functioning, nor people like Vicky who are not, what needs to change?"