Are Service Providers Helping Solve Homelessness?

Outreach_Team_TwoPATH was founded over 30 years ago and, for 19 of those years, I have been leading the agency.

Running a small organization was simpler back then. We helped homeless people find jobs and provided transitional housing until they could get back on their feet.

The stories of personal success were numerous. I could walk through the local mall and run into store employees who had been helped by our agency.

I remember one day a “Big Blue Bus” stopped right in front of our agency doors. The bus driver stuck his arm out of the window pointing toward us, so I went outside to see if there was a problem.

With a wide smile and a giddy voice, he told me, “I was just showing my passengers where I used to live, and telling them how you saved my life!”

Like most people who worked in homeless agencies decades ago, we were honored to serve people who were hurting. People called it “God’s work.” People called us “heroes.” We were on the front lines, battling a social ill.

But the sentiment toward our work changed about a decade ago. After enduring years of the national embarrassment called homelessness, someone or some group had to be the scapegoat. Rather than blaming policymakers, community leaders, or even funders, the finger was quietly pointed at the very group of people that, for decades, had been helping people who were homeless.

Homeless service.

A decade ago, the mantra of policymakers was simple: “We need to stop managing homelessness and end it.” And who was managing the problem? Service providers.

Our transitional housing programs were failing. Our counseling was enabling. We raised millions of dollars simply to perpetuate the problem. On top of it all, we fought with each other for limited resources.

But blaming the homeless agencies was like blaming the organizations working with international refugees for not ending the flow of desperate people in need of food and shelter. Homeless agencies in America were criticized for providing temporary solutions for people who needed safe beds right away.

If you ask most homeless agency leaders what their response to homelessness was back then, they would tell you that they provided emergency solutions. And, indeed, they were barely even managing the problem, given the large influx of people becoming homeless.

So, as new policies were created and new strategies were initiated to “end homelessness,” service providers scrambled to stay relevant. Transitional housing was no longer the solution and, in fact, funding for such programs was eliminated. Many local homeless agencies went out of business.

The agencies that survived changed their tactics, and even changed the type of people they helped, whether they agreed with the “Housing First” approach or not.

It has been 10 years since the focus on housing became a national priority. It has been years since policymakers embraced the business community as a key partner and redirected most public and private funding toward permanent housing for those with the greatest need.

Yet, homelessness still has not ended. In fact, in many communities, homelessness has increased.

And, once again, homeless service providers are being looked to as part of the solution. Because, when policy changes and funding is redirected, the community still turns to providers to actually house people who are homeless.

The provider community will not only house people, they will provide a compassionate shoulder for that single mom who lost her apartment. They will go arm-in-arm with that homeless veteran who is being interviewed for a housing voucher. They will visit that sick elderly homeless man who is spending the last months of his life in a hospital bed.

In a way, homelessness is a refugee problem. The homeless provider is that organization that must provide quick solutions, like a bed for the night.

But, to stop the flow of homeless refugees ending up on our streets, this country needs to address the root cause of homelessness: poverty.

Because service providers can’t end homelessness alone.