COMMENTARY: Positive first steps taken to address Dover homeless issue

Recently, Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen appointed a “Blue Ribbon Panel” charged with devising a plan to address the needs of the homeless in the city. The panel represented a number of agencies whose work touches those who are homeless, and interviewed additional community members who share the panel’s concern — including several homeless individuals. With this comprehensive view, a plan was developed and presented to the mayor and council.

Mayor Christiansen is appointing a task force to implement the plan, which this article summarizes.

Jeanine Kleimo

The plan recognizes the significant number of homeless individuals in Dover. Nearly 600 unique individuals resided in Dover shelters during the past year. The Resource Center at the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing sees 400 to 500 individuals annually who are in need of housing, employment, and services. The Dover Public Library routinely sees similar numbers, providing the panel with a sense of the demand for additional highly affordable housing.

The plan — “A Housing Pathway for the Homeless” — summarizes the steps taken by the panel as follows:

• Identification of homeless individuals in our community

• Recognize current efforts by local groups and organizations

• Discover gaps in services available to aid the homeless

• Find opportunities for improvement

• Identify barriers to ending homelessness

• Seek additional resources in our community

• Develop innovative approaches towards reducing homelessness

• Foster coordination among various governmental, public and private agencies

• Perhaps most importantly, endeavor to raise awareness of the homelessness problem and encourage compassion for those struggling to find adequate housing

Values which guide the plan were also set forth:

1. Housing is a basic need.

a. Housing comes first. You don’t need to fix the homeless person’s problems before he is housed.

b. All homeless persons should have equal access to services and programs.

c. Persons experiencing homelessness have a right to be treated with dignity.

2. Individualized supportive services are the key to sustaining permanent long-term housing.

3. Family members should be housed together whenever possible.

It is no surprise that the principal recommendation is for the provision of more, highly affordable residential solutions. Many homeless adults who succeed in securing employment still cannot find housing that they can afford and can access based on their previous work histories and credit issues.

Average private rentals charge an amount roughly equal to the value of full-time employment at the minimum wage, with motels charging as much or more. Many individuals who are unable to work receive disability income of $735 monthly, which is insufficient to cover rent and other costs of daily living in the local market. Current sources of affordable rental housing, including local housing authorities, report waiting lists which often require a two-year delay.

Clearly, there is a serious gap between the supply of very affordable, decent rental housing and the demand for it. In the past, the proposed “solution” has been accessing rental assistance to pay for the difference between the rental charge and 30 percent of household income. The supply of rental assistance has not kept pace with demand, and many argue that this is not the best use of public funds when it is available.

With all this in mind, the Housing Pathway report advises that several components be implemented:

First, existing shelter spaces need to be maintained. Ideally, these will operate in conjunction with essential services needed by the homeless and will refer clients to the best available local solution to meet their needs. Creating shelter space in the same place as most-needed services makes sense for assisting those who lack transportation and other resources.

Second, a significant number of congregate housing beds should be constructed, providing single or double-occupancy rooms with shared kitchen, bath, and living facilities for residents who participate in building operation and the provision of services needed for one another, such as cooking and cleaning. These would be operated with professional oversight and would include access to case management to maximize the stability of residents.

Third, derelict houses in the downtown district could be renovated and made available as affordable rental units, perhaps converting what had been a single-family house into two apartments. This may be a suitable option for homeless families.

In all cases, the management of housing for the homeless needs to include “case management” services that include personal financial planning and assistance with accessing education, training, and employment opportunities.

With many individuals actually living “on the street,” there is an immediate need for the temporary storage of personal items as well as for points of information to access all available services. The plan proposes the creation of storage lockers or other space in convenient central locations along with stationing volunteers or other individuals willing to serve as “guides” to services for the homeless who frequent the Dover Public Library.

Three phases of work have been identified for the task force:

1. Address the immediate needs of the homeless for storage space downtown and for access to information about currently available employment, public assistance, and housing options.

2. Develop a “whole health” approach to housing that incorporates essential services into housing provided, maintaining all existing shelter space in Dover. Ideally, this includes the provision of shelter and services on a single site, possibly utilizing a large vacant building for conversion to a shelter and services setting.

3. Plan for long-term housing that recognizes that enabling homeless persons to transition into a self-supporting productive home situation is a long-term process requiring varied support services.

The implementation of this plan will not be easy and will not take place overnight; however, important steps have been taken in terms of the plan’s acceptance by the mayor and council.

Much good is being undertaken in downtown Dover through the Restoring Central Dover initiative. This needs to be complemented by making room for those who have no access to housing, creating affordable and supportive residences for such individuals and families to achieve basic stability. Some will be able to move on to become tenants and even homeowners in their own right.

At present, 70 percent of the men at the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing are employed and searching for affordable housing options. This means that 150 or more of the homeless population achieve productive lives each year — through just one of the local organizations assisting them. More housing opportunities are needed to make homelessness a temporary state of life rather than a characteristic of local poverty. The Housing Pathway report and an active and hard-working task force can help to make this possible.

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

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