Homelessness is not one problem. For most people, homelessness is the ultimate manifestation of a series of problems. Unless homeless services training is part of an overall plan to address the underlying factors that end with people living in the street, it won’t have the greatest impact possible on the problem. Strategies to combat homelessness work best on the community level, with coordination and support from regional, state, and federal government agencies and civic organizations. Getting as many people as possible interested in the plight of the homeless is important, but knowing how to direct their interest into productive channels will increase the level of success of any program to combat homelessness. We’ve drawn up a list of seven strategies for successfully organizing your efforts at helping the homeless.
Get a Plan in Place First
You need a solid plan to address homelessness in your community. A plan of action will make the best use of the resources you have available, and will give you a way to channel the enthusiasm of local citizens who express an interest in helping. It’s much easier to enlist the help of activists, business leaders, and government agencies if you can tell them exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, and how they might be able to help you reach your goals. In order to reach goals, you have to define them first, and a codified plan of action is the place to start. If you’re unsure of how to begin, seek out a ready-made plan of action from organizations like center4si.com that are already working to end homelessness.
Gather Your Information
Your plan of action will need solid data to make it into a reality. Simply gauging the size of the homeless population in your area can be a difficult task, so you must have information in hand about the problem to be able to attack it wisely. The Department of Housing and Urban Development gathers a lot of data about populations that don’t show up on other lists of the residents of your area. It’s called the Homelessness Management Information System. If a person in your area receives any kind of service from homeless assistance programs in your area, HUD will know about them. You’ll be able to offer help and support to your local homeless population more effectively if you know how many people you need to serve and what their particular needs are.
Last Ditch Prevention
For most people, there is a final step that precedes homelessness. Getting a person off the street after they’ve been living a transient life for a long time is much harder than preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. If you’re unable to decide on where to begin to help the homeless, you can start with an outreach program that supplies vulnerable persons and families with emergency services, advice, counseling, and small amounts of cash that can mean the difference between staying in their home or ending up on the street.
Helping People That Start on the Street
Many people end up on the street as their first stop after a period of incarceration, or after being released from foster families or other state institutions. Many people who live on the streets have significant mental health problems, or other health-related issues. You can help many people by establishing a bridge from state institutions and healthcare facilities to secure housing without an intervening period of homelessness. While there are many programs available to help people, they are not coordinated, and navigating through them can be daunting for people already dealing with significant challenges.
For many people going in and out of correctional and mental health facilities, intervening periods of living on the street are a way of life. Asking for a total turnabout in behavior on all fronts all at once can frighten people away from accepting the help that you can offer them. The first step in getting people off the street is to offer them simple shelter that makes no other demands on them as a term of acceptance. If a homeless person has serious substance abuse problems or mental health issues, they are often suspicious of the motives of people who are extending an offer of help. Mandating too many immediate changes in behavior as a condition of housing can keep vulnerable populations from taking the first step towards staying off the streets permanently.
Shorten the Distance Between Rungs
If you examine the process of assisting people who are living on the streets as a ladder to a better life, it will become obvious that shortening the distance between the rungs on the ladder will reduce the chances of sliding back into living on the street. Homeless services that allow vulnerable populations to transition from one level of assistance to the next without long delays will let people achieve true independence more quickly, with fewer detours and reversals. As we stated in First-Step Outreach, it’s important not to dump all the steps on a vulnerable person at the same time. Ensuring that the next step in the process is always available when the last step is taken will shorten the length of time that a person or family stays in the homeless assistance process before achieving an independent life. Shortening the time spent in the system frees up additional resources for other people who really need it, expanding the number of people you can help on a limited budget.
Attack the Income Problem
In order for individuals and families to truly achieve independence, they will need a steady source of income that makes their independent life possible over the long term. All homeless services training must include learning about all the programs that can help the transitioning homeless person achieve income security. Job and career counseling, educational opportunities, and other employment matching services are important, but all forms of cash assistance and transitional welfare programs need to be coordinated and made available to ensure the long term stability of the client.