In our last #BuildingBridges blog post, we took a hard look at ourselves as a community and our response to solving chronic homelessness as a humanitarian crisis. The conclusion was that we weren’t doing nearly enough. The number of individuals experiencing homelessness continues to grow. For every one person housed, there are nearly three new individuals who are experiencing homelessness. What’s worse is that many people in our city don’t even have access to the lowest international standards for water and sanitation. Understanding that these issues need to be solved by communities, cities, and governments coming together was the impetus of the last post. This week we hope to shed light on some of the barriers that are preventing these communities to come together, and ultimately get in the way of real solutions.
It’s first important to understand that a person or family’s path into or out of homelessness is not linear. While we might think the definition only encompasses individuals living in shelters, on the streets, in tents, or cars, an end-to-end view of the response system is necessary for understanding the magnitude of the issue. There are 3 major stages of homelessness: Entering, Experiencing, and Exiting. Local governments and services providers aren’t just seeking to house individuals who are experiencing homelessness but to also stem new entries into homelessness and keep the formerly homeless housed. The problem at hand is that most of these service providers are focused on one type of program or stage of homelessness, with very few organizations addressing the entire system.
As mentioned in the first post of our #BuildingBridges series, there are over 6,000 nonprofit organizations located in San Francisco. Not to mention multiple city departments and services that all offer independent support assistance dependent on what stage of homelessness an individual is experiencing. One can only imagine how difficult it is to even begin to understand who to ask and where to go for assistance regarding their current circumstance. Things like securing housing, getting individual counseling, or applying for government assistance programs all require different agencies and different requirements. We’ve seen it first-hand as a lot of the clients that At The Crossroads supports have to navigate the complex maze of services at one point or another. It’s frustrating, it’s time-consuming, and oftentimes feels like a wild goose chase to get the right services.
For most nonprofits (At The Crossroads included), the search for funding is a seemingly endless battle. One of the honest challenges in responding to homelessness is that much of the funding for a lot of nonprofits comes directly from the city and local governments. As one can imagine, this raises a couple of concerns from the perspective of nonprofits as well as individuals experiencing homelessness. The same institutions that nonprofits are trying to hold accountable for some of these systemic injustices are very the institutions that support them financially. This makes it risky to speak out about the flaws and to challenge for institutional change in fear of losing funding that keeps the lights on and employees paid.
In addition to this, studies on nonprofit organizations and access to government-funded resources indicate that by accepting government funding, nonprofit organizations today must often engage in one or more of four practices: reject clients normally consistent with their mission, select clients based on likely outcomes, ignore problems in clients’ lives relevant to their predicament, or undermine client progress to manage funding requirements. What this means is that in return, in order to secure these government resources from nonprofits, individuals experiencing homelessness must adhere to stricter eligibility requirements and processes. This kind of system makes it impossible for individuals experiencing homelessness to get the unconditional support needed to bring positive change into their lives. We need to find a way to hold our city and local governments accountable without fear of withholding funding or bending core mission values.
We are often quick to reach into our pockets when disaster hits, like after an earthquake or wildfire, but why is it that people are more reluctant to pitch in when it comes to helping individuals experiencing homelessness? The answer is stigma. Social stigma directly contributes to the disparities in wellbeing that plague individuals experiencing homelessness. With a natural disaster, problems are attributed to the disaster itself, not the individuals. In short, we don’t place blame on people who are displaced by a natural disaster. Homelessness, however, is instead attributed directly to the individual, who we conclude are somehow to blame and not deserving of help or relief. The idea that all individuals experiencing homelessness are “criminals,” “mentally ill,” or “indolent” are signs of stigma unsupported by facts, and it’s a big barrier we face in trying to solve this crisis at hand. A study of adults living with mental illness and experiencing homelessness found that perceived stigma was a significant barrier to accessing mental healthcare due to their fear of discrimination and their perception of being labeled as “mentally ill” as a result of seeking psychiatric treatment. The perception of bias by youth experiencing homelessness was correlated with suicidality, loneliness, and social alienation.
While Bay Area residents say they want problems around homelessness solved, there is also a pervasive NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) mentality that prohibits progress. Last fall, the Milpitas City Council voted unanimously to sue to prevent a former motel purchased under the aforementioned state’s Project Roomkey program from becoming a permanent supportive housing development. Another example of this spatialization of stigma is the voter-approved ordinance in San Francisco to ban sitting and lying on sidewalks that were strongly supported by neighborhood and merchant associations. This has since been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the city Democratic Party for being a violation of people’s human rights. Not until we begin to educate ourselves around some of the myths and facts around homelessness, can we start to better understand the root causes of homelessness, stop blaming our most vulnerable neighbors for these challenges, and have more meaningful discussions and spread better awareness among our community.
These examples represent just a few of the many barriers that stand in the way of real solutions to chronic homelessness. What do you think are some of our biggest barriers to addressing homelessness in the Bay Area? In next week’s #BuildingBridges blog post we’ll cover a question that we hear often in our space, “where does all the money go?” It’s a complex answer that we hope to shine some light on as we continue to educate ourselves and our communities.
If you haven’t already, register to join the discussion with us on June 15 @ 6:00 PM PST where four nonprofit leaders are coming together to have honest conversations about these complex issues. By registering early, you’ll have an opportunity to pose your biggest questions around homelessness for our panelists to discuss live.