Foreclosure victims suddenly have no credit. The long-term homeless have no money, no income, and typically no way of generating more. It is not that society has been turning a blind eye to the homeless plight, but according to Dennis Culhane, professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, we have focused on an ineffective direction.
To define the people living on the street and how best to provide practical aid, the Mercer County Alliance to End Homelessness has invited Culhane to speak on “Implementing National Strategies to End Homelessness.” This free lecture takes place Wednesday, October 8, at 8:30 a.m. at the New Jersey Hospital Association’s Conference Center. Visit www.merceraliance.org, or call 609-844-1008.
Culhane is one of the few who has been able to turn his personal crusade into a lifetime career. After earning his bachelor’s in psychology from St. Bonaventure University in 1985, he attended Boston College, earning his Ph.D. in social psychology with a thesis of “On Becoming Homeless.” He continued teaching at Boston College until 1990 when he moved to Penn. Culhane is on the advisory board of Citiscape, and in 2005 was noted as one of “America’s Best and Brightest” by Esquire Magazine.
At last count, Mercer County claimed 11,801 homeless people in Trenton, and another 14,219 in the suburbs. Twenty percent of Mercer households bring in total incomes of less than $25,000 a year. While New Jersey has remained noticeably less scathed than most states by the recent rain of foreclosures, we live in the midst of an epidemic of long-term homelessness — a deeper tragedy of entirely different sources.
“Of course accurate numbers are very, very difficult to obtain, but there is actually evidence to indicate that long-term national homeless has dropped slightly in the last few years,” says Culhane. “This does not in any way make it less of a major social problem. Nor does it mean we can ignore it and it will go away.”
There are two distinct categories of long-term homeless: single individuals and families. Each typically finds their way onto the streets for entirely separate reasons, but each requires a totally reverse approach than the one currently applied.
Homeless and alone. Generally, long-term homelessness is defined as being without permanent lodging for several years. The federal government quantifies it as being without a home for more than one year, or having no home for four extended periods in less than three years. Immediate causes given for losing one’s home are loss of employment, divorce, and long-term illness. But Culhane insists that each of these has an underlying cause which leads to the immediate one, and those are the issues we must attack.
More than 80 percent of the nation’s single homeless individuals are middle-age men, with a median age group of mid-40s. “The great bulk of these people cannot hold a job because of mental illness. Others cannot due to substance abuse,” says Culhane. “They need assistance.”
And that explains the tight age grouping. Younger men can get aid from their families. Older men get increased public assistance. Men in their 60s, in most states, qualify for SDI — State Disability Insurance — which can pay $1,000 a month. The middle-aged man, however, can only apply for SSI — Supplemental Security Income — which brings the assistance figure down to $600.
“In either case, there is no affordable housing for people with these limited funds, nor are there the necessary support services nearby these individuals require,” says Culhane. This lack of employment, lack of adequate assistance, and lack of affordable housing keep the spiral heading downwards.
Homeless families. An estimated 85 percent of America’s homeless families are women in their mid to late 20s with two children having a median age of 5. They are single, poor moms trying to tend young children who need continual watching, and somehow squeeze in a survival-level job. Culhane explains that most of these women are in transition, moving from the shelter of their immediate family, on to some other kindhearted relative. But currently, their situation denies them the necessary income.
Like the single men, these sole-parent moms are often unemployable, but for a different reason. Few of these mothers have the available time away from children to obtain a full time job. And even if they do find the time, employers see the necessary child care requirements with the resulting flexible hours, and the red flag goes up. They don’t want to pour out that many perks for a low level job.
Thus, these women have no adequate income. Their available public assistance is woefully inadequate for the area’s rents, and even if they can find inexpensive housing, it seldom offers the necessary support system families with small children need.
Housing first. Beginning in the late 1970s, state facilities began the practice of “dumping.” Non-dangerous mentally ill patients were turned out of overcrowded facilities, where they had been full time residents. These former patients were mainstreamed into society and received varying forms of periodic outpatient care. This practice, along with swarms of new immigrants, and adverse economic conditions, brought about a homeless boom in the 1980s.
“For the past 20 years we have been trying to solve this problem using an unsuccessful, reverse tactic,” says Culhane. Shelters were constructed by the thousands, primarily in urban areas. In theory, the person without a home could walk in, receive a bed for the night, and hopefully get retrained with the proper social support system.
This would make them ready to take on the responsibility of renting or owning a home. In reality, the shelters became overcrowded crash pads, where many of the penniless gathered to rob one another. Since shelter residents moved around so frequently, they were never at one place long enough to take advantage of the flickers of social support offered.
“The new Housing First approach is simple, much more cost efficient, and is generally more effective,” says Culhane. Instead of offering night-at-a-time shelter, homeless individuals are installed directly into permanent or temporary rentals immediately. Public assistance handles the required percentage of the rent. Once in a home, the family feels safe, and has the opportunity to take care of job training. They have a mailing address and the chance to avail themselves of the necessary services, notes Culhane.
If the government’s proposed bail out plans do not directly attack the foreclosure problem, economists are estimating another 1 million foreclosure next year. Interestingly, these economists predict that virtually none of these foreclosed households will join the America’s current 774,000 homeless people. The two groups are different classes and will find different solutions. As a caring society, we owe it to both groups and to ourselves to see that no one needs find that solution in a cardboard box under a bridge.