Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Homeless Case Management Faux Pas

Consider this scenario:
    With an increasing homeless population, the good citizens take notice of all the alcoholics and mentally ill people wandering the streets, and so they call on the city to "do something about it."   In a charitable mood, city officials decide to allocate funds to help the homeless.  Those funds are given to a local shelter, since the shelter administrators are considered the experts on homelessness.   The shelter hires two case managers and gives them office space to work from.

Announcements are made in the shelter about the services available from these new case managers.   Some of the homeless who spend their days around the shelter avail themselves of these services.  For several months the city funds this case management program, but it fails to see any progress made on the streets - the drunks and mentally ill people are still wandering around the city.   Complaints from citizens continue.  City officials call on the shelter to ask what is going on with the program.   The case managers show their records to the city officials, proving that they are doing the job assigned them.    Everyone is perplexed.   Money is being spent, the case managers are doing as instructed, but the problem remains.    What is wrong with this picture?

Here is the deal - homeless people can be divided into two types - shelter homeless, and street homeless.   The homeless who spend their days around shelters do so for several reasons, safety and comfort usually.  Those homeless who do not make use of shelters have their own reasons, a lack of trust is usually at the top of that list. Also, the addicts and mentally ill who wander the streets usually lack the skills necessary for living in a shelter.   Because the shelter homeless spend their days in and around shelters, they are not usually noticed by the general public.  Those homeless who wander city streets have no other choice.

The problem of the above scenario is that the case managers are sitting behind desks.  They are shuffling paper work instead of getting out and scouting the streets for homeless people who could benefit from their help.  To reduce the number of homeless people living on the streets, it is imperative that case managers, and others who work with the homeless, do outreach work.   They should not be sitting behind desks and waiting for the homeless to approach them.   Often these shelter case managers will claim that they don't have time to do outreach too.   And this may be true as resources are often limited.   It is easy for a case manager to occupy him/her self with helping 100 shelter homeless people file for food stamps instead of helping 2 street homeless find permanent housing.    When setting priorities it is important to establish quality over site and not just assume that the case managers should fend for themselves.   In the homelessness industry, communication is still the biggest problem, a lack of proper over site is a close second.

It is also important to recognize that not every outreach effort is really benefiting the homeless.  Many outreach efforts only work to get the homeless into shelters.  This may temporarily clear the streets of some homeless people, but this does nothing to actually help people overcome homelessness.    Shelters do afford a certain level of service, providing food shelter clothing etc., but rarely do shelters end homelessness.  In many cases they do more to enable it.

The best situation would be for case management to be available to all the different types of homeless people, for those who live in shelters and for those who do not, for those who live in camps, for those who couch surf, for those who have recently become homeless, and for those who are chronically homeless.