Homeless programs still need funding

By By Spencer Merrick

By Spencer Merrick

When it comes to social issues, no group is as opinionated, frustrated or idealistic as college students. But we are often so bent on saving the world that we forget those in our own backyard.

Ideas, especially idealistic ones, indeed have a certain power in the social realm. But as Harvard professor Robert Coles once said, in speaking of the very issue addressed in this column, “We like to analyze the problem of the poor. But what are we doing for just one poor person?”

Although homelessness dropped 18 percent in Utah in the past two years, according to federal estimates released in July, state budget cuts and other factors could lead to another climb in homelessness this year. The state has an estimated homeless population that ranges from 3,000 to 4,000, a large percentage of which are children.

Maybe at the beginning of this semester, instead of lamenting our own economic plight (“These textbooks are going to cost my firstborn child!”) we could turn our attention to those who have literally lost everything, and those who are bound to join as a result of the currently rocky financial climate.

As we turn our heads toward the issue, many of us will make a sour face. Unavoidably, questions are raised as to the ethics of helping those who “could and should be helping themselves,” especially when “helping” involves taxpayers’ money. Indeed, many people don’t prioritize homelessness as a public issue on the basis that it’s something the homeless have brought upon themselves through substance abuse. During this season of budget cuts, that attitude makes it a lot easier to cut funding for programs that aid the homeless.

“Funding for these programs shouldn’t be viewed as rewarding those who’ve made bad choices,” said Lisa-Michele Church, executive director of the Utah Department of Human Services. “We need to quantify the effect on the community at large and disregard the bad choices…substance abuse is not a victimless crime. There are other people in the lives of the substance abuser that suffer, namely children.”

Chronic homelessness is defined as being homeless for more than a year. Only nine to 11 percent of the total homeless population is chronic, but use more than half of the resources for supporting the homeless.

It costs far more to deal with the effects of chronic homelessness than to invest in programs that treat the causes. The Division of Housing and Community Development researched the activity and costs of the 39 most arrested homeless men between 2002 and 2006. The men spent 15,000 nights in the Salt Lake County jail, logged 837 arrests, 433 bookings and 155 ambulance calls per year for a total of 2.6 million taxpayer dollars.

On the other hand, preventative programs are much more effective, not to mention cost-efficient. In the past, many programs have been based on the homeless person’s ability to “earn” his or her right to have adequate housing by overcoming substance abuse first. Such programs have proved unrealistic and unsuccessful.

Many homeless people feel both a sense of pride in being able to survive on the streets, and a sense of shame in being unable to complete day-to-day tasks such as shopping and cooking. As such, many have little drive to seek out adequate housing, and continue to suffer from their addictions on the streets.

A relatively new program called Housing First takes an opposite approach. They give adequate housing, which is key to stability, to the chronically homeless first, along with aid in relearning and applying basic living skills. Then slowly, as the homeless find more stability, a greater base of human support, and a higher sense of self-worth, they are more likely to overcome substance abuse or manage mental illness.

Cutting funding to programs such as Housing First, drug rehabilitation centers and mental health clinics is not only immoral, even at a time of economic turmoil, but will inevitably increase the rate of homelessness in Utah. The taxpayer dollars spent on dealing with the effects will far outweigh those that could have been spent on more compassionate, preventative measures.

There are a number of ways to help, and not just discuss, homelessness8212;most involve donating time, money, or clothes and food to a nearby shelter. But you could also get to know a homeless person or family. Homelessness is more than just what the word implies8212;it’s socially isolating and lonely, often void of support from family or friends.

David Langness of Homeless Healthcare suggests donating to homeless agencies rather than the homeless themselves. But when you see them, he says, especially someone who is asking for money, make eye contact and say hello, and never ignore the humanity of that person.

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