I am, unabashedly, a behavioralist: let’s stop suggesting that people who are poor are in that spot simply because the economy doesn’t or can’t create enough good-paying jobs to support every household in America. Without a doubt, it’s a tough world out there and too many are being left behind by a stormy marketplace and the people we elect to protect us from that storm. But those of us who care for those in need are at least naïve, at worst contributing to the problem when we deny that plenty of people are poor because they’ve made bad decisions.
We all make bad decisions. For many of us, our circumstances are privileged enough that we can survive a bad decision or twenty. For poor folks, life is a constant struggle to survive crises, and it’s tough to make good decisions in a crisis; the car broke down, making you late for work – again. The employer’s had enough. Now you’re unemployed. Paying your bills was a challenge before, impossible when you don’t have a job. Getting your car back on the road isn’t likely to come easily without a paycheck. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., liked to say, and so it goes.
When families with children become homeless, it should evoke heart-breaking sympathy. Unfortunately, it happens every single day – too often. But society has become hardened by the endless crises wrought on families, so they aren’t paying enough attention. Hopefully, that newly-homeless family can find room in a local shelter like the Sixth Street Shelter. Community Action’s shelter for families with children is an oasis in the desert of resources all around us.
Although the Sixth Street Shelter is the largest family shelter in the region, the entire network of shelters in the region is full; often, people have to wait.
When they finally get in, we expect them to immediately get to work to get their lives back in order. However, it is difficult to make the long-term decisions, like whether to go back to school and get that degree you never got, when you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from. The 60 days our families get do not afford them the luxury of accomplishing much more than stabilizing their crises.
So, back in the mid-1980’s, we pioneered the idea of long-term transitional housing. Instead of two months to get your life in order, we will give you two years. But while you’re living in our building the expectation is that you’ll add vocational plans to the social contract you are expected to develop to ensure your quick re-entry into the real world.
This works, in part, because there isn’t anything close to an adequate supply of affordable apartments in the Lehigh Valley. You want time and support to get on track? Sign here to commit yourself to addressing all the issues that complicate your life. You’ve got two years: ready, set, GO!
We’ve had pretty good success at this. None of our families who complete the program find themselves back in the mess of homelessness again for at least the year we follow them. Many get community college degrees and better jobs because of it. We don’t have the resources to track them for the three to five years we’d like to but we have lots of anecdotes of successes.
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development decided that these programs are too expensive. They came up with this silly concept called “Housing First,” then sold it to shelter providers around the nation. The thought is that if we get folks into an affordable home, the stabilization of the crisis resolves a big part of the problem.
If only. Here’s the problem: there is no affordable housing anymore. People need to be much more crafty to get their lives right. Getting someone a home without addressing their drug addiction or depression or their need for a job so they can afford to keep the apartment is a pretty good bet that resources will be wasted.
I’ve been amazed at how ruthless HUD has been at forcing this new approach on local communities, including taking funding away from the entire community if that community insists on transitional housing being part of the mix of tools in the toolbox. Consequently, one such program has already shut down. One or two more are on the ropes.
So, one of our two such programs (one in Allentown and one in Easton that, together, serve more than 20 families per year) lost its HUD funding last October. The other one is privately funded, so we can thumb our collective noses at HUD.
We gnashed our teeth and wrung our hands trying to figure out what to do about that. Eventually, we gave up and decided to close the program in Allentown. “But wait a minute,” I said. “Let’s try a last-second equivalent of the Hail Mary Pass.” So, we sent a letter out to the 6,000 addresses on our mailing list, asking folks to step up or introduce us to that rich aunt or uncle who never had kids.
To our surprise and euphoria, a couple emerged last week. This couple has been solid supporters of ours for some time and they have stepped up yet again, committing $60,000 this year and $50,000 next year to keep the program going while we find a more lasting solution.
Hail Mary, full of grace! Thanks to our friends, once again, for demonstrating that the Lehigh Valley truly takes care of its own. And it’s a pleasure to thumb our noses at HUD once again.