Two-thirds of all homeless people are homeless for some other reason besides substance abuse.
All over the state of Florida, communities are trying to address problems associated with homelessness. While circumstances vary, the research data shows that the main reason people experience homelessness is because they cannot find housing they can afford. Yet, this fact is completely ignored when communities discuss how to solve the issue of homelessness. Affordable housing is rarely part of the solution equation.
Also missing in discussing viable solutions is the use of national best practices, current empirical data, measurable outcomes, and our own governors’ specific guidance. Why?
Every year we do a Point in Time Count of people experiencing homelessness. The Florida Council on Homelessness uses these facts to make statewide recommendations to our governor. This is valid data yet, for the most part, ignored by city and county leaders making decisions.
Almost every community repeats the same mistakes related to panhandling, sleeping in public, feeding in public and other homelessness issues over and over. I believe this happens because the size of the problem globally makes solutions seem insurmountable. They just want a quick solution to a small portion of the problem. They want to make their community members satisfied.
Lets talk hard facts. According to the “Council on Homelessness 2015 Report” submitted to Gov. Rick Scott, we had 35,964 citizens experiencing homelessness in January 2014. Of that number 55% (19,812) are disabled, roughly 20% of them are children (6,852), and 16% (5,100) are veterans.
Despite the fact that the report clearly gives all the reasons for homelessness, city and county solutions focus on one issue: substance abuse.
The truth is, lack of employment, financial struggle, medical issues, mental health, family crisis (domestic violence), relocation, immigration, and natural disaster account for most of the problem. That’s right, 67.4% of the people experiencing homelessness are not homeless because of substance abuse.
Yet, in communities throughout Florida, solution discussions are only centered on the minority who present a problem in their community. Discussions in city and county councils and commissions are about how to get the panhandlers out of downtown, or how to stop public urination, or how to prevent people from sleeping on the streets, or how to require people get substance abuse treatment. They try to treat the results of the problem instead of the problem itself.
Secondly, the business of solving homelessness is just that, a business. I am not saying there are not great people in the nonprofit or faith based world that do not have great intentions. I am not saying there aren’t shining example programs or stories of great achievement. I am saying there is no standard of measurable outcomes that homeless service providers use to properly gauge success.
The only logical measure of success for this industry is how much was spent and how many people were moved from homelessness to permanent housing.
One example of this measure being needed is in the city of Daytona Beach. City officials are trying to build an antiquated homeless shelter using a model that research shows is not effective (Volusia Safe Harbor). The cost of this facility is $10 million over five years ($4 million to build and $1.2 million to operate per year), and no measures of real success are required.
Volusia County, Daytona Beach and the surrounding cities are rebuking every piece of research and telling the public this shelter will help solve their problem. Unfortunately, the reliable data shows they will spend all this money and garner zero results.
Truly notable is the fact that not a penny of the $10 million is allocated for things that are needed to solve homelessness, such as additional job training, additional substance abuse services, additional medical services, additional mental health services, additional ID services, additional legal services, or even additional clothing or food. All monies are being spent on providing the structure for a 250-bed shelter and give service providers a collocated space to offer the same services they offer now.
To summarize, solving homelessness is not as complex as you think. There are proven solutions for every problem. Every bad solution has been tried. We as citizens need to demand our community leaders do not repeat the same mistakes over and over again. We need to educate ourselves and demand our money be spent in a productive way.
Thomas Rebman, of Palm Bay, is a homeless solutions consultant with a masters in reading from Stetson.