We only have so much attention to pay and critical-thinking time to invest. How we gonna use it?

It's uncomfortable and depressing to consider the roots of a social problem because that means taking a broad view and not just defaulting to individual experiences or anecdotal information ("I knew this one guy in high school who was super lazy, dropped out and never wanted to get a job– no wonder he kept getting evicted and ended up back at his mom's house."). It's also straight-up hard. We have to devote time to learning, reading and listening; we have to challenge some of our default narratives and biases.

We only have so much capacity for compassion, so much attention to give! Digging into the complex causes of homelessness is time-consuming and confusing. It's way easier to direct our attention and outrage to the nasty symptoms of poverty, like a guy pissing on the street, or the sad consequences of poverty, like two little girls burned to death in a steam explosion. Lucky for us, that particular story has a very convenient plot line: Apparently, the girls' parents abused drugs. Therefore, we can blame them for killing their daughters because if they didn't use drugs, they wouldn't be poor. If they weren't poor, they wouldn't have had to live in a shelter. If they didn't live in a shelter, their kids wouldn't have been burned to death. If that sounds cruel, know that a lot of people hold on to that notion. We gotta blame someone and it's just so much easier to blame a specific person or family. Check out the comments on this blog post to see those thought-processes at work.

That kind of blame narrative is also very helpful for distracting us from the roots of homelessness.

It goes like this: Shelters are shitty and poor people are disgusting with no self respect. Comfortably focus your anger on that shit instead of deeper causes of homelessness.

Again, we only have so much attention to pay, so much critical thinking time to invest. Why sink it all into understanding uncomfortable, complex crap when we don't have to? It's certainly not regarded as a social responsibility. 

Growing up in a small, conservative, rural town, I was constantly exposed to those simple, convenient responses, usually presented as anger, world-weariness and superiority. From a pretty young age, I knew that blaming poor people for poverty or ranting about more superficial storylines didn't seem accurate or honest. I couldn't put my finger on it and I definitely didn't have the vocabulary to express what I sensed, but I could tell that there were structures and systems that punished, obstructed and screwed certain people while rewarding others. In order to understand better, I needed to keep questioning the simple narratives and seeking the alternative ideas and explanations. These were generally more comprehensive and certainly more accurate.

It's hard to break away from the easy-to-parrot narratives, especially if you're young and lack a foundation of knowledge.  I needed jump-off points to better understand and to express my positions. Reading the 2016 State of the Homeless report composed by the Coalition for the Homeless reminded me of my early experience with struggling to put words and arguments behind what I perceived. It is a clear and concise resource we all need.

This particular paragraph, for example, serves as a handy summation of a key cause of homelessness:  

Rents in New York City once again soared in 2015, the market continued to hemorrhage affordable units, and incomes have not kept pace with housing costs – most significantly for the lowest-income New Yorkers. Between 2010 and 2014, the median household income across New York City rose by 2 percent, while the median rents rose 14 percent. In the lowest-income neighborhoods, the median income decreased by nearly 7 percent, while rents rose by 26 percent. At the same time, the number of units renting for less than $1,000 (including both regulated and unregulated units) decreased by over 175,000. This dramatic and growing gap between incomes and rents continues to drive countless New Yorkers into financial crisis, all too often culminating in homelessness.

The bad news is, ending homelessness requires prioritizing affordable housing (attitudinal change) and then actually building and preserving an adequate amount of truly affordable permanent housing (policy and system change). That's a lot of work.

The good news is, it's possible to end homelessness because homelessness/poverty is not an inherent trait. Massive homelessness is the obvious outcome of bad housing policies and trends, which we can change.

I think those who are new to advocating against homelessness might start from those two positions and then fill in the details. 

When encountering panhandlers

Friends sometimes ask me what do when they encounter “homeless people” panhandling on the subway or street. Should they give money? Should they feel guilty about not giving?

I think it’s up to each individual to make that decision for themselves (so do other homeless advocates). I also inform my friends that not everyone asking for money is homeless. I have run into a few of my housed clients on the subway or the street before. Personally, I think your money would go further if you donated to a homeless services agency or a food bank. You could save up the money you'd otherwise hand out dollar-by-dollar to individuals and instead donate larger sums to the organizations working for homeless and poor people. Here are a few organizations to check out:

Now the guilt question. I don't think we need to feel guilty about not giving money to each individual who asks for it, but I think we probably should feel guilty that anyone in our rich-as-hell city needs to ask for money to survive. Every single day, I encounter panhandlers on the subway and it really sucks. I am crammed in this uncomfortable tube, the doors open and a person enters asking for money or food. Now I’m forced to consider social inequities, discrimination, mistreatment and indifference. I feel helpless. 

What if society ensured that everyone had what they needed to survive and thrive: a home, healthy food, medical care, mental health care, substance use treatment, jobs. What if we ended homelessness? What if we guaranteed permanent housing to all people? What if we valued social service organizations and budgeted enough federal, state and city money to enable them to serve those in need?

Maybe the best question is, How can we answer those other questions?

To start, I think we can identify some worthy organizations and donate money to them (not old crappy clothes, not boxes of pasta – money). Next, we can encourage our lawmakers to actually talk about poverty and homelessness. We can educate ourselves about solutions to homelessness (like MORE HOUSING and MORE HOUSING VOUCHERS). And we can elect leaders who will seriously work toward those solutions. 

Think of it this way: We'd sure have a more comfortable subway ride. 

The Home Stability Support program would save people from becoming homeless

The HUD FY2016 fair market rent (FMR) for a 2-Bedroom apartment in New York City is $1,571. Yet, a 3-person family with children that earns Public Assistance only receives $400 in shelter allowance, about 1/4 of what they need. It's more or less impossible to rent an apartment for your family if you receive Public Assistance without some sort of additional (and rare) housing voucher like Section 8.

There are currently more than 80,000 people in New York State who receive PA and who pay rents 1.5x higher than their shelter allowance – including 21,000 who pay rents 2.5x higher. Home Stability Support is a statewide rental supplement that would enable New Yorkers at risk for homelessness to find an apartment and prevent eviction.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, "HSS would cost $11,224 per year for a household of three in New York City – a mere fraction of the $43,880 it costs annually to provide temporary shelter to a homeless family."

New York State originally instituted the shelter allowance to pay the cost of housing for low-income individuals and families unable to otherwise afford rent, but the allowance has not kept up with rising rents in the past few decades since the law changed in 1975. 

Citywide, the rapid FMR increase has been significant for most people but crippling for low-income individuals. Consider Kings County (aka Brooklyn). In 1983, the FMR for a 2-BR apartment was $420 (the current shelter allowance wouldn't even cover that). Now it's $1571.  In 2008, 2-BR FMR increased by nearly 11%. In 1994, it increased by more than 20%. Last year, it rose by more than 6%. 

This problem isn't new. It's just exploding. An article in The New York Times  explored the very same issue more than 23 years ago:

Less than six weeks before Gov. Mario M. Cuomo must propose next year's state budget, his administration is considering pressing the Legislature for the first increase in rent subsidies for welfare recipients since 1988 . . .  The rent subsidy, which is known as the shelter allowance, is so low -- $286 a month for a family of three in New York City -- that many families on welfare have been forced into homelessness, lawyers and other advocates for the homeless say. The median rent in the city, according to a recent report on housing vacancies, was $475 in 1991.

Back in December 1993, when the article was written, there were  5,100 adults and 7,500 children in the city's family shelters. Today, the population has more than tripled.

Even if you typically oppose subsidies that lift low-income families with children out of homelessness and poverty, check your small-government impulses for one moment and use the other parts of your brain: New York City is already paying a billion dollars just to warehouse people in temporary, substandard municipal shelters. We would save hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize permanent housing for families – and that's not including all the attending social benefits of housing, especially for homeless children who have zero power over or responsibility for their living situation.