Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Homelessness Is A Symptom

Homelessness, by itself, is not a social problem, but is a symptom of social problems. Trying to end homelessness by attacking only homelessness will not succeed. It would be like trying to curing someone of the flu by blowing their nose. It is only by dealing with the issues that cause homelessness, that will end, or at least reduce, homelessness.

What most often leads to this misunderstanding about homelessness, is that, institutionally, there is no separation of homeless types. Instead, all homeless people, regardless of the reason they are homeless, are lumped together, forced exist in one place, or facility. Usually, it is in a religious based, most often fundamentalist christian, facility, operated, not by well trained social workers, but by under educated religious zealots. There are some very good exceptions, though, such as run by Catholic Charities. But in most cities, Catholic Charities do not operate homeless shelters.

For the alcoholic homeless person to get off the streets, he must end the alcoholism, or at least get it under control. To get the mentally ill homeless person off the streets, he end the mental illness, or at least get it under control. And that applies to every type of issue leading to homelessness. When a woman has to flee her home with her children, because of an abusive husband/boyfriend, she must first be completely separated from the abusive relationship/s she gets into. When a person becomes homeless because of poor money management (the number one reason people become short term homeless) they must get their finances under control.

Now, at Monday's "Quality of Life in Downtown Nashville" forum, one person tried to cast dispersions on homeless people as a whole. One of the ways he tried to do that was by declaring many homeless people to be criminals. He said he had once sat on the Grand Jury, and was surprised that many people being bound over had a shelter as their home address.

First of all, poor people are least likely to obtain good legal counsel. Mostly, homeless people have to depend on public defenders, who never have enough time or resources to properly defend their clients. Additionally, you have a criminal justice system that inadvertently promotes homelessness. At least I hope it is inadvertant.

After a person has paid their debt to society, and leaves jail or prison, he/she often has no place to go. And, our society begin so bent on "independence" creates a situation were people live alone, having no family or friends intimately close enough to help out during trying times. Whatever job a person has before incarsaration is gone when they get out; so is their apartment, and all other worldly possessions. It happens, then, that these people recently released from jail or prison fall directly into homelessness. Many of these people do move on and out of homelessness, but only because they get help from agencies dedicated to their cause.

We do know that recidivism is real, and that the majority of all crimes are committed by just a few people. So, there is a very real chance that a criminal, recently released from jail or prison, and living in a shelter, will commit another crime. And, more than likely, they will do so against another homeless person.

The reason is NOT, as this person insinuated, that all homeless people are inclined to commit crimes. The reality is that there is a segment of the homeless population that is stuck in the revolving door of the criminal justice system. Again, homelessness is not of itself a social problem, but is a symptom of other problems. If problems with our criminal justice system were solved, there would be a drop in the homeless population. And in this case, if this particular problem were solved, not only would people getting out of jail or prison no longer become homeless, you would relieve the rest of the homeless population of the hard core criminals, making the quality of life better for them. And in so doing, will make it much easier for the rest of the homeless population to overcome their problems that lead to homelessness.