Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Housing First" for the Homeless

Lawyer Harry C. Arthur is suing to shut down The Beacon homeless day center. His timing is unfortunate – people are painting him as a Grinch because the story was released around the Holidays – but Mr. Arthur has a point.

It’s not politically correct to say it, but soup kitchens are horrible for neighborhoods. When the centers are open, they do not accommodate everyone who needs their services; so the homeless congregate outside. When the centers are closed, the homeless disperse into surrounding streets, to “urinate, defecate and drop trash in the street, sidewalks, doorways and other private property,” (as Mr. Arthur put it).

There is an alternative. The New York Times talked about a homeless shelter in Bergen County New Jersey that “has more of the feel of a Courtyard by Marriott than of a homeless shelter.” It is designed to be a one-stop shop for the homeless; where they can get hot meals, medical care, job-placement, laundry, and all of that. But the priority is housing. Before anything else, Bergen County finds permanent homes for its clients. This is the “Housing First” model.

Finding a place to live is a logical starting point to rebuilding a life. It’s difficult to get healthy, or keep a job when you’re worried about where you’ll sleep every night. Without an address you may as well not exist in America. And how can you go to a job interview if you can’t shower and clean your clothes first?

“Housing First” also solves many of the neighborhood problems caused by day centers for the homeless. Because the clients live there, they don’t congregate outside or disperse into surrounding streets. There are beds, toilets, and trash cans that they can use, instead of sidewalks and doorways.

Houston needs the Beacon, but Harry Arthur has a point, too. Maybe the Beacon could use the “Housing First” model– find homes for its clients instead of taking them in for a few hours, and then putting them back on the streets.

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