Common Myths about Homelessness Debunked by Facts and Evidence
I DON'T SEE A LOT OF HOMELESS PEOPLE IN MY COMMUNITY, THERE IS NOT A HOMELESS CRISIS HERE:
The overwhelming majority of people experiencing homelessness on Long Island are unseen. Over 90% are living in emergency shelters and not living outside. Of those living outside, the majority are living in tents in the woods, or living in their vehicles, with only a very small number being seen by community members in locations such as train stations, libraries, parks, in shopping centers and in front of businesses. Homelessness exists in every community across Long Island. On an given night there are more than 3,800 people experiencing homelessness, most of which are households of families with children. That number of people experiencing homelessness on LI is higher than most areas of the country, and people also experience homelessness, on average, for significantly longer periods of time than most places in the country. Homelessness on Long Island is often overshadowed by homeless in NYC which is much more visible. Many Long Islanders, unaware that homelessness is a crisis on Long Island, donate time, money, and resources to support homelessness in NYC.
SOME PEOPLE ARE SERVICE RESISTANT AND WANT TO BE HOMELESS
These statements most often come from people that have never met people experiencing homelessness or have met a very small number of people that experience homelessness that have concluded that a large group of people that experience homelessness want to remain homeless. What research shows is that street outreach is effective in moving people off the streets with ongoing engagement, ensuring the availability of housing, and building housing plans that are driven by the person experiencing homelessness, based on their needs and wants.
PEOPLE NEED TO BE SOBER TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN HOUSING
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence suggests that there are 17.6 million people in the US that are addicted to alcohol. Meanwhile, on any given in the US only 600,000 people experience homelessness- and not all of those 600,000 has an addiction to alcohol. This means that about 17 million people stay housed despite the ways they use alcohol. Harm reduction models used in homeless services that are proven to be effective, do not require that someone be sober to be housed, but support people that use alcohol and substances to do so in ways that do not risk their tenancy.
PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS NEED TO BE IN INSTITUTIONS, NOT IN HOMES
The National Alliance on Mental Illness in the US states that 1 out of 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year, with about 1 in 25 having a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. About 2.4 million Americans live with schizophrenia alone. The majority of people with mental illness do not have access to mental heath care, are not regularly taking medication, and remain successfully housed and never experience homelessness.
STREET-INVOLVED BEHAVIOR AND HOMELESSNESS ARE THE SAME THING
What community members observe can be misleading and presumptuous based on stigmas or pre-conceived notions as it relates to who community members think about for who is living on the street. A housed person can be street involved (i.e. congregating and socializing at shopping centers, train stations and other public places). Many communities, Long Island included, also have shelters and other housing programs that require that people leave the residence during day time hours. Statistically speaking, the majority of people that loiter or panhandle are not homeless (and are ticketed for such behaviors in areas where that can be enforced). Most of the calls received on the LICH Street Outreach hotline from community members that observe people to be panhandling, are found not to be homeless, upon outreach response. While nationally, about 1 out of every 3 people that are experiencing homeless are living on the street, on Long Island less than 5% of people that experience homelessness are on the street (over 90% live in shelter and about 5% live in vehicles).
People that do experience and live on the street, while representing a very small percentage of the overall homeless population on Long Island, are often the most vulnerable, with rapidly deteriorating health. The LICH Street Outreach team has consistently found, that when engaging and working with people living on the street that they had actively sought to access housing resources, and either did not know what resources assisted because they had not been continuously engaged by housing-focused outreach teams that were successfully connected them to permanent housing, or when referred to permanent housing programs they were often not accepted into programs. The LICH Street Outreach team is working predominantly with aging adults that have been living on the streets for a number of years with little to no support systems in place. Those that are street homeless often are what the community understands to be typical while it represents a very small percentage of the homeless population. As this population is often not connected to supports, they often present with the most severe disabilities (mental health, alcohol/substance use, physical health and other) and are often not receiving any regular medical care.
NO ONE IS DOING ANYTHING ABOUT THE HOMELESS "PROBLEM"
There is a tremendous amount of money being directly spent on homeless services on Long Island: The Office of Temporary Disability, each county DSS, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Runaway and Homeless Youth funds, The Office of Mental Health, HOPWA (HIV/AIDS), VA, HUD Continuum of Care and Emergency Solutions Grant, Medicaid and others all fund homeless housing and/or services. Most of the money for permanent housing programs are funded to serve specific populations such as those with diagnosed severe and persistent mental illness, Veterans, and persons with HIV/AIDS. The problem is that the majority of the homeless population on Long Island do not qualify for any of those programs. Furthermore, the specific programs models that evidence shows to be most effective such as permanent supportive housing using a "Housing First" approach, rapid rehousing rental assistance for families and single adults, street outreach, and homeless diversion are funded at a smaller rate, as most funding goes toward homeless shelters and mental health housing that does not follow a Housing First approach. LICH has worked with a collaborative of stakeholders to direct funds to the program models that evidence shows are most effective. In order to receive HUD funds through the Continuum of Care, agency partners must adopt of housing first approach, meet the most significant service gaps, and operate permanent supportive housing or rapid rehousing as effective methods of serving those most vulnerable and exiting families out of shelter faster. LICH has operated a street outreach program for about two years, where we have seen more people living on the streets obtain permanent housing than in the ten years prior. As the evidence becomes even more clear and overwhelming, we know what works- it will be a matter of political will as to whether dollars will be used in the ways proven to be most effective, and agency partners will continue to adopt program models and evidence-based practices that are most effective. LICH coordinates with partners across the country to identify what is most successful, any new emerging practices, and what leadership looks like in the communities that are doing best in addressing homelessness in their communities. Those communities that have strong leadership and political will, adopt evidence-based practices and funnel resources to those programs, and enhance community dialogue about homelessness and how to solve it, are the ones seeing major reductions in homelessness, trauma, and human suffering in their communities.
IF EVERYONE IS IN SHELTER WE ARE DOING A GOOD JOB
Yes, as a community we want everyone to have a roof over their heads and a safe place to live. We also want that place to be their own and a permanent situation. Most people experiencing homelessness on LI are in shelters. Most people also experience homelessness for very long periods of time on Long Island, over six months on average, with some households that have remain in shelters and motels for several years. The number of people that remain in shelters for long periods of time have social and emotional costs. People that experience homelessness have likely experienced a large amount of trauma in their life, which only continues and compounds as they remain homeless. Children are growing up in shelters, are expected to meet the same academic demands of other kids in school, and often are not as connected to social networks or meaningful activities. The financial costs of placing a family in temporary housing could be close to $3,000 per month. It would literally be cheaper to give people housing.
Most communities where most people are in shelter, are often the communities that are the most intolerant of homelessness, and have responded to a community problem by taking people out of sight (and out of mind) from community members, by rapidly expanding and adding more shelter operations. There are almost 150 homeless shelters on Long Island, located across all of LI, which does not include about 1,000 additional people experiencing homelessness at any time that are placed in motels paid for by Suffolk and Nassau DSS.
Shelters are only effective when they are using intensive supports to quickly connect people to permanent housing, and when permanent housing is developed at a ratio of 6:1 permanent housing units to shelter units. If shelter capacity is not matched with permanent housing development, the detrimental result is that people are seemingly warehoused in shelter for years. It will take approximately two more years to offer permanent housing to everyone currently experiencing homelessness for one year more, which does not account for the significant number of projected households that will age into being long-term homeless (more than one year). This is often described as a "clogged" system, which newly enhanced housing assessment and intervention programs are seeking to address.
THERE ARE "THOUSANDS" OF HOMELESS VETERANS ON LONG ISLAND
These types of statements often insight anger among community members, who do not agree with the idea that it is acceptable for people to risk their lives to protect the country and then become homeless. The notion that there are a very large number of homeless Veterans on Long Island is not based in fact or data. On Long Island, the VA and many other key partners serving Veterans locally, have done tremendous work in reducing the number of Veterans that experience homelessness and continually work to connect Veterans to services quicker to minimize how long they experience homelessness. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) has declared that Long Island had "effectively ended Veteran homelessness." This does not mean that there are zero Veterans experiencing homelessness and that no Veterans will become homeless, but rather that any Veteran who does become homeless, the systems are in place to quickly connect them to housing. Those experiencing homelessness that are Veterans only make up approximately 3% of the total homeless population on Long Island, according to the most recent HUD homeless census count. Those who have served this country, nationally, are more likely to experience homelessness compared to non-Veterans. Long Island partners remain vigilant in addressing the complex needs of any homeless Veterans.
PEOPLE NEED TO GRADUATE THROUGH A CONTINUUM OF SERVICES
Traditional models were set up where people would go through stages in order to exit homelessness. In practice, this would often look like someone going from living on the street, to going into emergency shelter (up to one year), then if someone qualified and met program requirements would go to transitional housing (up to two years) to work on things other than housing and also learn how to be successfully housed. What evidence shows, is that in order to successfully exit someone out of homelessness more quickly and successfully, services for those that experience homelessness must be permanent housing-focused throughout (as is the LICH Street Outreach and Housing Navigation process). People can move from living on the street directly into housing. People can move from shelter to permanent housing without transitional housing services. People are more likely able to focus on other areas such as employment and mental health services once they are housed, not during the time they experience homelessness and are in survival mode. Following a “housing first” approach leads to better outcomes and increases the likelihood that people are willing and able to work on other areas of their lives. Transitional housing is only proven to be effective for some special populations such as youth.
PEOPLE MUST BE “HOUSING READY”
Some people believe that there is no point is helping someone achieve housing if a person is not “housing ready.” Behind that sentiment is the belief that people have to change their behavior or character in order to be worthy of housing. It also implies that people should remain homeless longer (in program or not) before being "ready." Just how much homelessness does someone need to experience before they are ready for housing? Was this person ready for homelessness, when like most people, they thought it could and would never happen to them? Chronic homelessness (long term homelessness for people that are disabled) is, in part, a result of this myth or system models that use processes where people must first be ready or deserving of housing.
WE HAVE TO END POVERTY IF WE ARE GOING TO END HOMELESSNESS
Currently in America, about 40 million people live in poverty. About 39.4 million of those people are housed. Ending homelessness is a deliberate and focused effort and a homeless delivery system is not able to eliminate poverty. It can create a process that targets housing and services to those homeless longest, with the greatest vulnerability, and least connections to supports and streamlines access to housing and services in a way that remains permanent-housing focused throughout. This is the model the LICH Street Outreach Team and Housing Navigators follow, as what evidence shows to be most impactful in ending homelessness for more people.
PREVENTION IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO
Some people believe that if communities are going to actually end homelessness, that they prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place. This would need to involve a complete structural change of social, employment, income assistance, education, health, children’s services and other systems. This is not what most people are talking about when they talk about preventing homelessness and creating structural changes in all areas that will lead to people not becoming homeless will not something we see in our lifetimes. What people are often referring to is homeless prevention programs that offer one-time or short-term financial assistance with rent arrears, utilities, and rental unit security deposits. These programs are often touted as extremely successful. The problem with the results that back those claims of success is that people cannot predict the future and overwhelmingly most people that utilize those program benefits would never have become homeless. The only strong predictor of who is likely to actually become homeless, is if someone has been homeless before. Most homeless prevention programs are used for people that have not and would not have become homeless.
Themes and cited perspective and facts are from "The Book On Ending Homelessness" by Iain De Jog, CEO of Org Code