As a member of the Costa Mesa Street Team, I’ve had to opportunity to meet and relate with countless residents experiencing homelessness. As a result I’m often asked why I think people end up without a home. The reality is there is no answer to the question. Policy wonks, however, love to categorize. You might hear things like “some are mentally ill, some are addicts, and some are just down on their luck”. These are often true, but some may fall under “all of the above”, or “none of the above”. Trying to draft policy based on arbitrary categories never works (as the Supreme Court has regularly demonstrated).
As in all cases, before developing a solution, we first need to identify the problem. Homeless is not a category of people. This is why I say “residents experiencing homelessness” rather than “homeless resident”. There is not an invisible ceiling that separates resident’s experiencing homelessness from the rest of us. Some have been without a home for a week, some for ten years. Some, who suffer from addiction, were the product of their environment at a very young age, some saw their world turned upside down late in life. We are not dealing with a subclass of human. We are trying to find solutions for people who are just like you and I. These people simply do not currently have a home. Until we understand that, we can’t work toward solutions. Sure many don’t look and sound like us, but when you force yourself to look past that you realize that they are suffering from the same issues that many of us suffer from.
The first lesson my anthropology professor taught us in college was “people are people”. We are all products of our environment. This is not meant to discount the importance of personal responsibility, which is an essential part of the solution formula. A thorough understanding, however, of these personal stories is paramount if we are going to make policy that actually works. To provide a person with a home, means getting that person to the point where they are capable of living in and staying in a home. Some will need much more support than others.
As an example, I often advocate for supportive housing for those suffering from the most severe issues. Supportive housing is not just housing, it’s as it says, supportive. It usually includes on site physical and mental health care. This is essential because it allows you to conduct individual assessments, and prescribe individual treatments to deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis. Again, people are in the situation they are in for various reasons. Our solutions need to accommodate that effectively.
The simple solution for homelessness is housing, but that solution comes in many forms because different people have different needs. This fundamental understanding is imperative if we are even to attempt to statistically end chronic homelessness. Yes it is possible, but we need leaders to make policy based on an accurate understanding of the issue.