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Three important takeaways from John Oliver’s segment on the homelessness crisis

And what can be done to solve the issue for good.
  |  November 2, 2021

This week, HBO host and comedian John Oliver turned his attention to homelessness.

Before watching the “Last Week Tonight” segment, you should know: the 25-minute piece contains profanity, irreverence, and some key points about homelessness that need to be shouted from the rooftops:

1. Keeping homelessness out of sight is not the same thing as solving it.

“The impulse behind many local policies isn’t to help them, but to punish them for their existence and keep them out of sight.”

The segment opens with news clips that frame homelessness as a threat — or at least a nuisance. 

Oliver goes on to document that sometimes local policies codify these views into law by criminalizing behaviors associated with people experiencing homelessness. For example, ordinances banning camping. Or loitering. Or living in a vehicle.

In essence, these policies criminalize people for the measures they take to survive without a home. Critically, they do nothing to solve the true issue at hand: how to connect these people to permanent, stable housing.

Connecting people to permanent and safe housing is what ends homelessness at the individual level. Creating systems that are capable of ending it for everyone is what ends it across a community.

2. Homelessness is a result of system failures — not the result of personal failures.

As Oliver explains, often homelessness is blamed on the people experiencing it — instead of attributing it to larger structural forces. He points out that this blame crosses party lines.

From our work, we know that communities are able to make tremendous progress on homelessness, when they focus on fixing the systems. 

This is true, no matter what the political landscape of the community. Cities in red states and blue states, from the suburbs of Chicago to deep within the heart of Texas, have reached a measurable end to homelessness for a population

Think of it like this: homelessness is a bellwether. It’s an indicator for how well our systems are serving the needs of populations who are often the most marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised.

But what about mental illness and substance abuse? The vast majority of people who struggle with substance abuse or mental illness are not experiencing homelessness. The line between housing and homelessness isn’t addiction or mental illness. It’s opportunity. It’s privilege. It’s family, network, and community.

“We’ve housed plenty of people who have had alcohol problems,” said Jennifer Jaeger, Community Services Director in Rockford, Illinois, a community that’s ended veteran and chronic homelessness. “We must focus on: what is it about our community and our housing structure and our landlords and our other systems that is keeping that person on the street. How can we overcome that system barrier and house that person?”

3. Solutions to homelessness must include a change in perception.

“It will take a massive commitment … but the very first step here is a collective change of perceptions.”

Oliver concludes that it will take a lot to solve homelessness, but that first we must change the way we see this issue.

We could not agree more.

In this work, we’re up against the myth that homelessness is an intractable problem.

And this myth does incredible harm: it fuels skepticism and ineffective policies. It lowers public accountability for what can be done. And in the process, it compromises the lives of our neighbors, the health of our communities, and the potential of creating a more equitable society.

But we don’t have to let this myth remain unchallenged. Right now, more than 90 communities around the country are working to end homelessness through proven solutions that work. So far, 14 have measurably ended homelessness for a population. And more than 40 have made a measurable reduction.

They start by changing how they tackle the problem. Often, they describe this shift from responding to homelessness to ending it. Here’s how they do that.

Even if you aren’t part of the homeless response system in your community, you have an important role to play in solving this issue. You can help change the misperceptions around homelessness that are impeding progress toward ending it.