A new law, An Act Regarding Presumptive Eligibility and Homelessness under the General Assistance Laws, allows general assistance programs to help people who are experiencing or facing homelessness and who meet financial requirements for receiving emergency assistance. This helps but it is not a long-term solution.
I am a graduate student in University of Southern Maine’s Masters of Social Work program, and I have been homeless on four separate occasions. So this issue hits close to home. We know what causes homelessness, we have evidence-based research on what works to end it, and states have models we can adopt. Let’s get to it.
No one wants to be homeless, but it can happen to anyone. Deinstitutionalization in Maine in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the problem of homelessness. A well thought-out human rights move at the time, deinstitutionalization’s only apparent downfall was not having enough community services in place.
Patients with no life skills were forced back into their communities and expected to thrive without support. Hospitals, local jails and prisons took on the burden of the mentally ill, often with less than favorable results. It has been a long time since deinstitutionalization occurred, but its effects can still be seen on the corners of our streets, in the correctional system and at our homeless shelters.
The root cause of homelessness is poverty, and both are associated with a variety of other issues: poor physical and/or mental health, violence or abuse in the home, divorce, the sudden loss of household income, incarceration or a criminal background, exhaustion of friend and family resources or support, lack of health insurance and lack of a livable wage.
The “Housing First” model is a proven solution. The hallmark of the Housing First model is that the provision of housing isn’t contingent upon sobriety or counseling or job training or anything else. Provide housing first, then enable people to address their other needs. If you meet a person’s basic needs then the person can gain self-respect. At this point the world opens up, the individual can strive to be the best person they can be, in other words they find themselves and seek out their passion. As in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the needs lower down in the hierarchy (for safety and sustenance) must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up the ladder. If we need water, then little else matters until we have something to drink.
Kelly McEvers, in an NPR report, described how Utah reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent. Utah did this by coordination of state and federal resources that targeted homelessness in the state and were administered either directly to providers or passed through state or local governments. Utah used various funding sources that contributed to homeless housing and services, but were not dedicated to homelessness, including block grants, housing loans and partnerships with private funding.
Utah has inventoried all services available in each community. State agencies do a thorough coordinated assessment with all persons experiencing homelessness by using core questions to refer persons to the necessary services. The Utah Homeless Management Information System has developed this coordinated process into its software for use statewide in 2014 and will be able to track referrals and deferrals for future planning and coordination.
There is no easy solution to the difficulties we face as a community, state and country when it comes to solving homelessness. Hospitals and institutions historically have not been the answer. With human lives at risk and intense suffering going on in our backyards, it seems like this would be the time to take action.
If we want the problems with homelessness to go away, we have to do something more than giving the homeless our pity and go on with our lives. Provide the homeless with a roof over their heads, a warm shower and clean clothes. Give them the support they so desperately deserve and meet their basic human needs. The homeless desperately need us. It could be one of us tomorrow; don’t ever forget that.
Richard Morin of Gardiner is a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine.