April 20, 2009

Defeating Family Homelessness – One Family, One Community At a Time

What’s needed: A Battle Plan, Americans Helping Americans, A few Axes and a couple Pitchforks

There is a battle going on right here in our own neighborhoods and the enemy just got some heavy reinforcements courtesy of this recession. The negative consequences of homelessness, poverty, addiction, domestic violence and unemployment are worsening and their effects are impacting innocent children and each of us in profound ways. They are hard-hitting opponents that unless dealt with accordingly will wreak havoc on the core of the American institution: the family. We all know we cannot let that happen yet it is happening right now here and in communities across the country. The reason why is because the community as a whole doesn’t have a plan with clear objectives related to how we are going to defeat these guys.

Defeating family homelessness (the lowest rung of poverty here in America) won’t happen with programs that give free housing like we see happening in communities across the country around the “housing is a right” banner. And it absolutely will not happen with the old models of feeding, sheltering and servicing the homeless. Those approaches will only at best give most folks a short reprieve from homelessness. But worse they will lead us back to an experiment that failed us miserably: free housing (Google: “free housing to homeless”).

Reacting and servicing people in need by giving quick fixes instead of recognizing the cause of the grief and setting out to jointly solve the underlying root problem only enables what was once a little suffering to become huge monsters. The sight of those monsters then produces more reaction and even bigger band-aids. The recent trillion dollar bailout package suggests that this phenomenon is true. It’s a cycle that you should view as a real threat. Our collective indifference might even be revealed one day as the REAL enemy. You can stop the merry-go-round by refusing to stay on it and refusing to spin it.

Yes we need to feed the hungry and care for the hurting. But that is just the beginning of the battle that we as a community face. And we are losing that battle today not because we don’t have the heart, but because the battle plan we’ve been using sucks.

We are losing because we respond to these opponents like wimps with kid gloves. We treat the symptoms instead of going after the supply lines of poverty. Giving a bowl of soup is a wonderful way of showing we care; it treats the symptom of hunger. But to solve hunger we must go way beyond the bowl of soup. Providing a warm bed on a cold night to a homeless person shows compassion, it treats the symptom related to exposure. But to solve homelessness requires that we go way beyond the shelter bed. We haven’t gone way beyond for most. We do just enough to relieve the symptoms. Our opponents love that about us. Their secret weapon is our self imposed mediocrity.

The very fact that there are far more homeless in our communities today instead of far less proves my point. The plan most communities are using is a containment based plan. It seeks to contain this problem not solve it! This not only hurts our communities but often harms the very people being served.

70 years ago the guiding principles around solving poverty were compassion with discernment, work and accountability. The entire community worked together – businesses, churches, elected and civic leaders – to build purposeful relationships designed to solve the tough issues of poverty. As social issues grew, the government stepped in and huge social programs were born to try and manage the increased problems. Nonprofit organizations sprang up everywhere, yet their approach has all too often been to only treat the symptoms rather than to provide solutions. My intent is not to give you a history lesson but to help you realize that we didn’t end up here by mistake. We are reaping the consequences of 70 years worth of programs that were primarily geared around containing social problems instead of solving them at the core.

No matter how well intentioned our government programs are, and no matter how far reaching or how many billions of dollars they can throw at it, there is nothing that can respond to a social issue like Americans helping Americans and communities coming together around a good plan with a clear goal.

Given a good plan with clear goals rooted in the guiding principles that made this country great: hard work, accountability around ethics, integrity of purpose and sound leadership from all sectors of the community, we Americans can win this battle.

Solving family homelessness for kids and communities is really hard work. I’ve been leading efforts in North County for 17 years around a model based on accountability and partnership to solve homelessness. I can tell you first hand that defeating homelessness for a person or a family is a tough battle. Even with the amazing team of dedicated and talented professionals that work every day leading families out of homelessness, it’s hard. It’s hard because we aren’t just in the business of making transactions of compassion around a bowl of soup or a shelter cot. We are in the business of building strategic partnerships with the community to crush this thing called poverty, permanently. And that takes a community with some guts. And it takes a really good plan. But at the end of the day when we get to “take off our pack” and reflect on the fight, it was a good fight because a kid now has a future that doesn’t include soup bowls, shelter cots and welfare lines.

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