Public advocacy that changes beliefs
Although we live in the wealthiest nation on earth during the peak of our nation’s prosperity, we have not solved the problem of homelessness in the United States. And there is one overriding reason so little progress has been made on this issue: As a society we simply don’t know the truth about homelessness, and we have wrong ideas about the homeless. As brutal as this statement may be, it is absolutely true. Our ignorance as a society is the underlying reason that homelessness persists and the underlying reason that a solution to the problem seems almost unattainable.
It is obvious, therefore, that attitudes must be changed if solutions are to be found. If mayors and elected officials are to lead local campaigns to end homelessness, these civic leaders must understand the nature of the problem they will be facing and the reasons the homeless need our help. If philanthropists are to underwrite much of the work, they need to know why their financial backing is needed and why it can make a real difference.
So if a community ever intends to drive change that can significantly alter its local homeless landscape, that community will have to change the prevailing beliefs of its leaders, its citizens, its media executives, and all the stakeholders who have the ability to influence the steps that the community will be taking to address its homeless problem. An advocacy campaign, therefore, is a necessary prerequisite to this effort.
In America, we “do” what we believe. In America, we spend our money according to what we believe. In cities and counties and states across our nation, we prioritize our efforts according to what we believe, especially those efforts that require our resources. So if a community believes that the homeless are “homeless by choice” or that the homeless are “lazy and just don’t want to work,” that community’s actions, policies, and investments will reflect its misguided beliefs. But if a community understands the truth about homelessness—that the vast majority of the homeless are not homeless by choice and that without our help these people will never be able to achieve self-sufficiency—then that community’s perspective will change and its approach to the problem will change. And that means that homelessness itself will have the capacity to change.
THE PHILANTHROPIC COMMUNITY
The active participation of the community’s philanthropic sector
Large communities tend to have a robust philanthropic community. So in order to solve the homeless problem in any particular city, that city’s philanthropists will have to be actively involved in the process through both funding and collaboration.
This dynamic is especially important to success because the nonprofit organizations that serve the needs of the homeless will ultimately follow the lead of the philanthropists who support them. So if a community’s largest funders of charitable work are both the architects and the largest financial backers of a community’s unified strategy to end homelessness, most of the organizations involved in the work of helping the homeless will be willing to work together to make that effort successful.
Because the leaders of a city’s homeless initiative will have to create a “marketplace” for change before change can occur, the support of the philanthropic community is essential, and it is essential for both collaborative and financial reasons. The leaders of a local homeless initiative will need fungible resources. And while government resources will be more plentiful than private resources, the private dollars provided by philanthropic organizations will offer homeless advocates a more flexible pool of cash to meet unforeseen needs. Private monies are more quickly accessible than government funds and are more easily diverted toward urgent opportunities that can propel an initiative forward. So nonprofit organizations will follow the lead of their funders to obtain the cash that they need. And if the private funders are “on board” with a collaborative city strategy, the service providers will support that effort, as well.
VETERANS AND THE CHRONICALLY HOMELESS
A focus on veterans and the chronically homeless
There are four categories of homeless people who need help in communities across our nation:
- Homeless veterans
- The chronically homeless (those who have been homeless for at least 1 year or homeless four times in 3 years and who have a physical or mental disability)
- Families struggling in poverty
- Homeless seniors and youths who are vulnerable due to their respective stations in life
While all of these people need our help and deserve our help and while all of them benefit from housing solutions, a community must build a foundation for success by starting with those people who are the most visible, most vulnerable, and most expensive to a community while experiencing homelessness.
Veterans and the chronically homeless cost our communities astronomical amounts of money each year and are an incredible burden on the moral conscience of a community. In addition, these are the men and women who have been on the streets the longest and are the most vulnerable to sickness, violence, and death due to their mental illnesses and physical disabilities. Veterans and the chronically homeless are also the most visible people among the homeless population.
Strides forward in reducing the number of homeless veterans and the number of chronically homeless men and women, although not the end goal, could create a sense of progress in a community that could make the future goal of ending homelessness much easier to attain.