The complexities of homelessness

NICK EICHER, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Thursday, February 1st. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Homelessness is a complex problem.

And it’s a large one. On any given night in 2017, the government estimates more than half-a-million Americans were sleeping on the streets.

The large scale of the problem might suggest a large-scale fix. But one-size-fits-all approaches to problems requiring compassionate solutions have proven not to work.

EICHER: In December, we reported on one approach to this complex problem.

The state of New Jersey reported remarkable success at lowering its homeless population over a decade.

Officials there attributed the state’s progress to the “Housing First” approach. Under that model, the homeless are placed in homes without regard to drug addiction or mental illness.

And often, they receive little oversight.

REICHARD: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is taking the “Housing First” model nationwide. But HUD’s approach has its critics.

Many private nonprofit groups report their own successes ending homelessness—using a more holistic approach. WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has more.

JIM HENRY, REPORTER: In north San Diego County, Solutions for Change is a private nonprofit organization that seeks not only to provide homes for individuals stuck in welfare, but to completely change their lives. 

Single mother-of-three Amber Gann admits she was a mess before enter the Solutions program, having lost her children due to chronic substance abuse and addiction.

GANN: If I would get overwhelmed or stressed or something tragic would happen, I would either take some pills, use some drugs or drink some alcohol just because I didn’t want to feel the way I was feeling.

Raised in a welfare-dependent family with addiction issues, she says she knew no other way to live. 

But Gann wanted to change her life, and while in residential addiction treatment, she discovered Solutions for Change. Now a graduate of its rigorous, almost 3-year long training program, she says her life has changed permanently.  

GANN: I think It gave me life skills forever. It gave me enough confidence, enough motivation and enough soul searching that I’m able to deal with difficult life situations no matter what comes up. You know, they just gave me the tools and I had the willingness and I did the footwork to get there.

Clean and sober for two and a half years, Gann now has a full time paid job at Solutions. She pays her own rent—and most importantly for her—she has her children back.

Chris Megison is president of Solutions for Change. He says that while many programs now simply place people in often subsidized housing and say, “job done,” his organization seeks to break the cycle of poverty and welfare.

MEGISON: Our goal here is to end dependency and ending dependency by lifting people up out of deep poverty and equipping them with the skills, the knowledge and the resources that they need.

Solutions for Change places the homeless and impoverished in a 1,000 day program. They live on campus and receive treatment for addiction and mental health issues. They’re put to work on Solution’s aquaponic farm that raises fish and then vegetables in the naturally fertilized water.

Others work in a property renovation component. Solutions buys dilapidated houses and renovates them— which provides housing for those in the program. The entire operation is largely self-sufficient with some money coming from private donors. Only 5-percent comes from government.

MEGISON: We can get them out of these horrible conditions and re-equipped and back into homes where they pay their own rent and where they’re working. Most importantly, we’re transforming the lives of kids so that they don’t end up going and becoming the next generation of homeless.

Solutions focuses exclusively on families, about 75-percent are headed by single moms. People going through Solutions learn basic job skills and how to write resumes.

While not everyone makes it through the program, Megison says most do

MEGISON: 74-percent of the folks that come in, that start Day One, hit the 500-day mark, what we call commencement. That’s the first big milestone. They have $2,000 saved, a full time job for a consecutive 6 months and they’ve addressed a lot of those causative issues. Then 93 percent of them make it to the 1,000 day mark. 

All of that, Megison says, at a cost of $24,000 per year per family—about a third of what it costs taxpayers to keep the average family in social welfare programs.

He says over its 18-year life, Solutions has lifted 3,000 mothers, fathers and children out of poverty.

Other nonprofits are also taking the holistic approach to helping the homeless. While much of the country is adopting housing first—or what might better be called “housing only”—some groups seek to change the person and break the cycle of dependency.

Babysteps Ministry in Kirkland, Washington, uses a life skills program called Holistic Hardware to train the homeless. Founder Peter Kim:

KIM: For example, having a vision and other things like budgeting. A lot of people, they actually work quite hard, but they don’t know how to budget their money or hold their money. We help them with these resources that will end up helping them in life to move forward. 

The holistic approach has empowered Amber Gann to move forward. She works, is able to provide for her children, and takes them to school in her own car.

GANN: I’m no longer on any type of government aid. I pay my bills on time every time. In fact I just filed taxes like last week and it really felt good. Look, I’m a, you know, productive member of society. Who knew?

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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