COMMENTARY: Who are the homeless? And what needs to be done?

In response to the concerns expressed in recent articles and comments about the homeless, I wish to offer some insight based on the experience of the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing.

We do not wish to criticize or to comment on other approaches to addressing the needs of the homeless in the Greater Dover area.

Clearly, there is a need for more affordable housing and, perhaps, additional viable approaches to addressing the need.

Who are the homeless?

Our organization provides homeless men with shelter, meals and assistance with regaining lives of productivity and purpose. We operate a 36-bed shelter along with 42 beds of affordable transitional housing. In addition, we see many male and female adults who are homeless and who come to our daytime Resource Center, which offers shower and laundry facilities, a mailing address, and assistance with accessing employment, registration for public benefits, and guidance with a host of other needs.

During 2015, we provided shelter to more than 280 men. We estimate that there are over one hundred homeless adults in the Dover area at any given time. Two other shelters also assist men and women. The Resource Center receives visits from as many as 100 to 150 different individuals weekly.

Why are people homeless?

The most obvious answer is the cost of housing, which is not affordable to many at low wage levels —even with employment. Someone working full-time at minimum wage brings home about $300 weekly. Without savings, it is challenging at best and often impossible to save the down payment and first month’s rent on an apartment at these wages.

Jeanine Kleimo

Jeanine Kleimo

Finding a decent rental for less than $800 monthly is difficult. Those living in motels often pay most (if not all) of their income for the weekly charge. Families with two sources of income can succeed if they have access to housing to begin with; however, many have poor credit and other obstacles that make them less-than-appealing tenants to landlords in a tight rental market.

Many who are homeless have experienced an unexpected event that results in their homelessness. This includes eviction due to the loss of a job or the break-up of a relationship that centered on shared housing.

Often, those who work at low income levels live paycheck to paycheck, experiencing disaster when the next paycheck is not available. Illness or surgery and the time to recover are other frequent causes of homelessness. We have sheltered men who have become disabled on the job and who lack sufficient savings to sustain themselves and their families when they cannot work. Disability claims — at best — take time to process and often require persistence (and resources) over many months without income beyond food stamps and $79 monthly in general assistance — certainly not enough to pay for housing.

Many believe that “welfare” will provide all that is needed by those who are destitute. In reality, most are eligible only for food stamps, $79 in General Assistance, and Medicaid. Assisted housing has long waiting lists, with a two-year wait common for public housing and Section 8 vouchers.

Those with mental health and substance abuse issues are assisted with referrals to all available sources of help: the problem is that the demand for such services often exceeds the supply. Those who need urgent care for drug withdrawal, for example, may hope for access to a 72-hour detox facility.

As these two centers are in New Castle and Sussex County, transportation is an issue along with the obvious question of what is available after detox. For many with mental illness, very limited supportive housing situations are pursued while others may be moved from one shelter to another. Those who seek to continue illegal drug use or who suffer from alcoholism are among those who continue to make their own way outside of established shelter and housing programs.

How do homeless people get access to shelter?

Shelter beds are allocated primarily through the statewide “211” emergency call system, with referrals to shelters that report available beds. Some individuals do not choose to come into a shelter, where they will have to abide by rules and restrictions and risk eviction for their violation. Some who do come in cannot comply with the structure required and find themselves on the street again. Still others live outdoors or wherever possible during the warmer months and seek refuge in Code Purple sanctuaries on cold nights.

Many shelters provide access for 30 to 45 days. At Dover Interfaith, we have come to recognize that it takes many homeless men a longer time to get back on their feet. Our guests are expected to complete a checklist of tasks in order to have their stay extended beyond the first month, with other tasks required to extend their stay for up to ninety days. The average stay during 2015 was less than fifty days. While this includes those who broke rules and were evicted, the majority are successful in obtaining employment and stable housing before leaving the shelter.

A quick look at a recent set of 36 shelter residents reveals the following details: 24 were recently incarcerated. Most committed non-violent offenses involving drugs; however, most are not addicted now and seek to live drug-free lives. Having a criminal record makes it difficult to obtain employment and housing, even for the most highly-motivated individual who willingly admits to his past mistakes. Some of these young men lived without much parental guidance and got into trouble by befriending the wrong people. Many have limited education and skills, contributing to their challenges in finding employment that is sufficiently well-paid to cover housing costs.

Four suffer from levels of mental illness that limit their ability to maintain stable employment and self-reliant living. Some were discharged from mental health facilities when their limited Medicaid benefits expired. The shelter is not eligible to receive Medicaid payments, as it is not a medical treatment site.

Two men are skilled and have secured full-time salaried jobs that will provide benefits and sufficient income to support independent living. Both are awaiting reinstatement of their driver’s licenses, which were revoked when they were imprisoned. This step further delays their access to employment once they are released from incarceration. Once this is resolved, both will be able to live without assistance.

Two are veterans and are assisted with accessing veterans’ benefits. Three are disabled and in some stage of the application process for disability benefits. Most others have spotty work histories and weak educational backgrounds but are employable. We work with them to help them assess their skills and to prepare employment applications as well as coach them on interview skills and other aspects of their personal presentation.

How does someone move out of homelessness?

In most cases, it takes more than housing. Most of the homeless men we encounter are able to work but lack “soft skills” to enable them to get jobs. Some have prison records or fines to pay. Many have low levels of education and literacy. Most are able to work in jobs that require hard work, and most are able to secure employment in food processing, landscaping, manufacturing production, warehouses, and the like. A few have higher skill levels and simply need short-term assistance.

The Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing provides case management to address the comprehensive needs of shelter residents combined with efforts to encourage local employers to consider their applications. These efforts result in a better-than 60 percent “success rate” of employment for shelter residents. Along the way, many need medical care, encouragement, assistance with obtaining state-issued forms of identification, guidance with personal budgeting and banking, and help with a wide range of family and judicial issues.

We attempt to meet their needs with the help of many community supporters. The network of faith communities, organizations, and individual volunteers operating as the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing becomes an effective substitute for the set of individual relationships that many adults build in order to make sustained employment and personal success possible.

What does it cost to help the homeless?

Lots of numbers are being tossed about. A better question is what does it cost not to help the homeless? There is considerable evidence about the cost of emergency room treatment and public services needed to make it possible for those who live on the street to survive, not to mention the social costs of drug and alcohol abuse that affect many of them. More directly, the cost of providing shelter and basic staffing for Dover Interfaith is approximately $5,000 per bed annually. That’s $180,000 to keep the building operating with utilities, insurance, and basic staffing 24/7 so that 36 men have a place to sleep at night. Meals are provided by faith communities and other volunteers.

This economic cost must be compared with the benefits generated. While valuing stability and the lack of substance abuse or reduction in crime is challenging at best, the “output” in the form of jobs secured and wages earned can be quantified. If 150 men from our shelter went to work last year at minimum wage (with many, in fact, doing better,) then at least $2.5 million was put back into the local economy in exchange for the funds it took to operate the shelter. This means a rate of return on the order of 750 percent or 7.5 times the total operating budget. Surely this is better business than leaving people on the street.

What about housing?

Most admit that there is little truly affordable housing available. The national policy of “Rapid Re-Housing” for the homeless may be a positive concept; but the reality is that few units are available. When possible, we encourage those who have obtained jobs to share housing or to move into transitional housing developed to make it possible for men to save and plan for future independent living. There is not enough available.

What needs to happen?

Those concerned about the homeless need to develop more collaboration and support with the community as a whole, its employers, its landlords, and its local governments. We need to come to a common understanding of the needs of the homeless and of the options and tools available to address them.

We have seen much progress in eight years among the 1,600 to 1,800 men sheltered and the organizations and faith communities we work with. We hope that many others will seek to contribute their ideas and their compassion so that a more inclusive and productive community may be the result.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeanine Kleimo serves as chairwoman of Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing in Dover.

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