COMMENTARY: Empowering the homeless to take the next step

The term “homeless” describes a current and temporary condition for many and is not a characteristic of a person. It is a condition. Many people experience this condition for periods of time when drastic changes such as job loss and family breakups occur. Everyone wonders what it takes to change a person’s condition from homeless to housed.

More importantly, how do we avoid doing the wrong things or what is not needed but, instead, empower those experiencing homelessness to change their own situations?

The Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing (DIMH) has changed and grown over its nine years of operations, moving away from the notion of providing shelter and services to one of enabling the homeless to secure their own self-reliant lives. Resources focus on making the tools of success available rather than insisting on compliance with a particular path.

Along the way, we have discovered many of the obstacles that people face who are trying to regain stable lives.

Why don’t homeless people just get jobs?

Jeanine Kleimo

Some lack basic information that they need to secure employment, such as a birth certificate. If someone calls his or her state of birth’s department of vital statistics in the hopes of procuring a birth certificate, the office will request both the details of birth and a credit card for payment of the fee of $20 to $50. The homeless person does not have a credit card or address and experiences one of the many Catch-22 type problems faced in obtaining a legal identify.

Our Resource Center has solved both the address problem (by providing one) and will send an affidavit of the requester with credit card details belonging to one of our staff — who hope to be repaid through donations to DIMH, as grants rarely cover such a step. Help with Social Security cards and driver’s licenses is also provided.

One man was heard to say after waiting weeks to receive his birth certificate, “Now I exist!”

He went on to get a job and to move on to housing in the community, along with many others.

Some even obtain and maintain jobs while living in tents, with Code Purple sanctuaries their refuge on freezing nights.

Why do homeless people congregate at places like the library? It makes me feel unsafe.

To begin a response with a question: where would you go if you had no place to stay or work and no money to spend?

It’s true that the library is a public building. As such, people are allowed to go there when no other place is available. Many also congregate in the DIMH Resource Center, though users are expected to take advantage of services and to move on to make room for other patrons. Both places enable a mobile and sociable population to seek contact, friendship, assistance and support from one another. This interaction is as necessary for those who are homeless as it is for those of us who live and work with others.

With regard to safety: as a woman challenged by her lack of height, I have nevertheless never felt unsafe in dealing with more than 2,000 homeless men these past nine years. They are all human beings who respond to kindness.

What do homeless people need for their lives to change?

For decades since Maslow published his paper on the Hierarchy of Needs, we have recognized that people require food, clothing and shelter to survive. Most social programs focus on the provision of a minimal supply of these essentials, understanding that their absence makes the improvement of life impossible. While these basics are necessary, we must ask what is sufficient for people to change their conditions of life.

Empowering people to take the next step means giving them hope, encouragement and guidance, and showing them what is possible. Empowerment also takes the form of removing obstacles to success: the example of securing one’s birth certificate so that a Social Security number and license makes one employable illustrates this.

Many homesless people do not know how to go about finding work and are unprepared for the application and interview process. This is where places like our Resource Center or the Job Center at the Dover Public Library are key resources. At the Resource Center, people can learn how to use computers to complete online job applications. Resumes are prepared for them to communicate their skills and experience in an optimal fashion. Participants are coached in interview skills and assisted to obtain clothing suitable for presenting oneself to a potential employer.

They can also shower, access mail and do their laundry: things that one cannot do in a tent.

Perhaps most important, they interact with those who were homeless in the past and who can offer encouragement about how to succeed. They encounter people who are ready to believe that their success is possible and that they do not have to do everything alone.

In other words, the Resource Center empowers the homeless by removing some of the obstacles to their success and by providing a positive and encouraging setting for them to initiate change in their own lives. It also encourages people to obtain regular work that includes payment of Social Security so that one’s long-term future is a bit more secure.

Many homeless individuals lacking experience and basic identification are vulnerable to exploitation. One man was permitted to live on an employer’s boat while earning $20 per day for hard labor. Others — eager for work — are paid small amounts of cash “under the table” for manual labor and no opportunity for improvement.

Does this approach work for everyone?

Sadly, the answer is NO. Many who are homeless also suffer from mental illness and from substance abuse. Some mental illness is mild and may be treated with counseling or medication. Accessing sufficient care is still a challenge for many who lack stable residence, telephones, and transportation. Local services are often insufficient to provide the frequency and regularity of care that is needed.

Accessing services through the Resource Center is possible, including registering homeless individuals for Medicaid; however, the current outpatient treatment model assumes that the client has the personal ability to comply with the treatment plan.

Residential care is limited though greatly needed. In the meantime, the mentally ill and addicted are sent to shelters instead of those who might regain self-reliant lives as the result of a stay in a shelter with employment and housing guidance.

Many homeless individuals are disabled and alone. With monthly federal disability income of $733, they are also unable to afford most housing on their own. In the experience of those working at Dover Interfaith, many disabled adults fear living alone and dying alone and do not wish to be isolated from their community of people in similar circumstances.

Still others do not know how to apply for disability benefits or find their applications rejected, leaving them with no resources and no hope. Assistance and encouragement are provided in the Resource Center; however, many truly disabled low-income adults wait months and even years for financial assistance.

What about housing?

Study after study shows that people achieve greater personal stability and self-reliance when they are able to secure stable and affordable housing. Shelters are only a good starting point; but demand far exceeds supply. 761 different individuals resided in one of three Dover shelters during 2016. Few can afford the average $1,200 monthly cost for private rental housing, and waiting lists for assisted housing are long. A minimum-wage job is nowhere near sufficient to cover local housing costs.

Enabling people to achieve basic employment goals in a supportive group setting sometime leads to building friendships among those willing to share housing; but other obstacles remain: landlords seek those with demonstrated stability and adequate credit histories. This does not characterize most of those who have been living on the street.

Empowering people to achieve real stability means developing housing that is affordable, safe and which includes compliance with continued efforts to address credit, personal budgeting and other issues. Putting people into housing without supportive services may lead to a renewed cycle of personal failure. New models of housing affordable to those of very low incomes are needed desperately. Such housing must include expectations of participation in those activities, which will lead to improved personal earning capacity and self-reliance.

What works?

Cost-effective strategies to address the needs of the majority of the homeless are being explored by the Mayor’s Panel on Homelessness. Dover Interfaith knows that empowering the homeless is a critical step in their success and endeavors to keep its Resource Center functioning. At present, there is no funding for the Resource Center despite its critical contributions to the needs of our local homeless population. We are blessed with volunteers and occasional donations and do our best to sustain it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeanine Kleimo is chairwoman of the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing.

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