As part of my work with people experiencing homelessness, I frequently speak to groups around Bethesda on the subject. I always ask the same question:
“How can we end people’s homelessness?”
And I pretty much invariably get the same response:
“We should help them get jobs!”
That answer, implicitly advocating for self-sufficiency, sounds reasonable . . . until you think about what it’s like to live on the street. That I consistently encounter this misconception makes me think there’s an easily resolved information gap between people working to solve homelessness and people in the general community.
Perhaps the easiest way I can fill that gap is by juxtaposing my own job-searching memories with what I see from my perch at Bethesda Cares of the life of someone living on a park bench:
My life: My networking emails and phone calls have borne fruit, and I have a job interview the next morning. After making sure the outfit I want to wear is clean, I set my alarm and hit the sack early so that I’ll be at the top of my game for the meeting. I wake at 2 a.m. thirsty; the thermostat is set too high, and I’m parched. I reset the heat and go to the kitchen for a glass of water. The cat hears me stirring and scratches at the door to be let out. I unlock it, then return to bed.
Client life: I’ve spent hours walking around tonight, trying to find a place to sleep. It’s too cold to sleep on my bench, so I tried for the basement of a parking garage, but the security guards threw me out. My throat’s really dry, but I don’t have any water. That’s okay, though, because drinking water makes me need a bathroom, and I don’t want to get arrested for public urination again. I heard about someone getting beaten up for sleeping on a subway platform, and all his stuff got stolen. Maybe I’ll just stay awake all night.
You see my point. I needed several things for a successful job search: networking and the devices on which to network, food and water, clean clothing and a bed behind a door that locks, in a room with heat. None of those are readily available to anyone enduring homelessness, making the notion of finding a job to earn the money to get an apartment an exercise in futility. Sleep deprivation directly impacts our physical and mental well-being. Dehydration damages your heart. Job-searching without Internet access, in today’s economy, isn’t a thing. So in finding solutions to homelessness, in light of these realities, jobs aren’t the answer.
What is, you ask?
Providing someone with housing is the answer to homelessness. In fact, it’s a complete solution to the problem. Moving someone into a home — a studio apartment, a room in a group house — creates the stability from which he can rebuild his life. It offers the foundation from which she can address her physical or mental illnesses. It allows for a place to store clean clothing, in advance of an upcoming job interview.
My perspective isn’t new. In fact, our partners at Community Solutions are the creators of Built for Zero, a rigorous nationwide campaign to house homeless clients as a proven best means of addressing someone’s homelessness.