What does it mean to “try real hard” to end homelessness?


“You can’t always get what you want”

The number of homeless people does not reflect a situation that we want: More than 10,000 homeless people in Minnesota, including about 3,500 children with their parents, and about 1100 age 21 and under without parents, were counted in our 2012 study.

Our triennial statewide homeless study produces more than this simple tally. Over the next several months, we will report on the backgrounds and characteristics of homeless Minnesotans, for example: how many are mothers, fathers; how many find themselves on the streets because of abuse or neglect or because their family simply lacked the ability to care for them; how many have physical and mental impairments that create barriers to obtaining and keeping a job; how many earn incomes and maintain employment, but their resources don’t suffice in an expensive rental market. This information will be used by the state, service providers, and others to address homelessness.

“But if you try real hard, you’ll get what you need”

We can never completely eliminate homelessness, especially the short-term, acute variety. Beyond that, however, what about chronic homelessness? How close to zero can we bring the numbers? What should we consider as we “try real hard”?

“Trying real hard” involves a commitment to some short-term solutions – doing all we can feasibly accomplish to provide temporary shelter to house people with different needs. However, the short-term shelter response does not address larger social and economic issues which produce homelessness.

We need to do more; we need to think long-term. Homelessness constitutes a large issue. As concerned community members, we can perhaps feel overwhelmed. So, it helps to break our thinking about solutions into meaningful parts.

“Trying real hard” compels us to distinguish individual causes of homelessness from social-structural causes, and to address each as necessary. Some of the reasons for homelessness relate to characteristics of homeless people themselves. Other reasons derive from society and the economy in general.

For example, for one portion of the homeless population, poverty explains their situation. With income sufficient to afford suitable housing, they could remain out of shelters. Their individual routes to homelessness include lack of education and job skills. So, if we want to create an effective community solution, we face the task of doing whatever we can to upgrade their abilities to match the needs of available jobs (not jobs in general, but available jobs in our labor market).

However, as skilled as people might be, they will not find jobs unless jobs exist for the finding. Economic development initiatives and job creation initiatives can reduce the rates of homelessness, if they offer employment at sufficient wages to secure permanent housing. We need to recognize that solutions to homelessness do not fall solely within the housing sector. Our business sector, finance sector, and anyone else who can promote the creation of economic opportunities – they all have a role in reducing homelessness.

The path to homelessness can include experiences of violence or abuse. Strategically, we need to sort out the implications. For the currently homeless, we need to ask whether those fleeing abuse or violence require just temporary safety and symptom relief while they recalibrate their life plans, or whether they need more significant help. If they need more significant help, we need to determine how to provide it most effectively and economically. Addressing homelessness long-term, though, means looking beyond the currently homeless, to prevention. Our actions as individuals, as well as our collective actions through policies and programs, to reduce violence and abuse will reduce homelessness in the future.

A portion of the homeless population will require more than just shelter for the rest of their lives. This includes some severely chronically mentally ill people and some people with functional impairments that preclude independent living. For these, we need to continue to enhance the most effective and economical assisted living environments.

Nevertheless, much of the solution does not lie in the strategic and the rational. It does not demand economic analysis and the formulation of strategic plans. A substantial portion of the solution lies in compassion. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

A few hours before his death, Thomas Merton, a significant shaper of the conscience of the peace movement of the 1960s, told a conference: “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

Interdependence characterizes our community – including the homeless and the non-homeless – whether the connections among us appear obvious or not – whether we have volunteered at a shelter, just driven past one, or don’t even know their locations.

Our homelessness study raises consciousness about others’ distress. To fulfill our obligations as community members, it is incumbent on us to alleviate this distress as much as we possibly can. We can’t always get what we want, but through a combination of rational planning and greathearted compassion we can try real hard to provide to the homeless much of what they need.