“…[W]e cannot house him simply because he is homeless.”

…”[W]e cannot house him simply because he is homeless.”

I recently came across this line while reading a rejection email from a Nashville service provider to which I referred someone. It was a particularly devastating line to me. 

Homelessness alone should be enough to qualify someone for housing. Recently, I shared a video I found that asked five-year-olds to draw what a person experiencing homelessness needs most. Every five-year-old drew a house.

Housing first is a new evidence-based model being used by cities around the nation–in fact, including Nashville. In this model, people are not expected to deal with their demons before moving into housing–but rather are put into housing so that they can finally deal with their demons. 

The How’s Nashville campaign has embraced this model, and so far this year, they have had a 75% retention rate of people they have moved into housing–including many of those that agencies have determined were “not ready for housing.”

But, the particular program this email is from is not directly involved with that campaign and has quite a set of criteria in place. The criteria is designed to find candidates who are most likely to succeed in living independently before they turn a certain age. For some people, like the one I referred, this might have required a little more support–more than this agency thought it could offer. 

The less devastating but more aggravating line in the email read:

“..not providing the level of support he needs to succeed is irresponsible on our part and could potentially cause more harm than good.”

I hear this often enough in the social services world, and it always puzzles me. I have trouble translating it. Unless you can offer him everything, you cannot offer him anything? No support is better than some support? He’s too sick so he should just stay outside? How is living outside with no hope, struggling every moment to focus on your survival rather than your personal growth, less harmful?

I’m just not sure I buy into it. Sure, demons are demons, and in battle, sometimes the enemy wins. You can move someone into housing and the demons could kick harder and result in someone falling back onto the streets or, worse, the demons can make her or him feel invincible in their own house and engage in fatal behavior. But, for the people I meet and work with everyday, the risk of death is just as real–or I would argue more real–on the streets as it is in their own home. While the risks in each circumstance are different, the potential outcome is the same. For me, though, I’d rather that if the enemy wins a battle, the person dies with dignity in her or his own home.

It’s true. There’s not enough affordable housing to go around. So, naturally, prioritization has to happen. My question to my city, and to all cities across the world, is where are our priorities? Since when are our priorities in who is most likely to succeed or who requires the least amount of risk?

Oh, wait, it always has been. In fact, that’s why many people end up experiencing homelessness in the first place–people demand the best qualified for everything and so rarely take a chance on someone. Thus, those who make mistakes, those who are more risky to help, those that may not prove to be successful are a big portion of those on the streets.

As homeless outreach agencies, should we pick candidates most likely to succeed? Or should we pick candidates most at risk? Or what?

I’d like to look at one example that means something to me. 

In the Bible, God typically did not pick the most likely to succeed. God took risks, on people like Moses, David, Saul–or on, let’s say, the entire nation of Israel. And those risks didn’t always immediately pay off. Time and time again, these people failed. Some became murderers. Some repeatedly turned away from God and went right back to the behavior from which God had rescued them. But, with God’s help, these lesser likely to succeeds did in fact succeed. 

Should we always choose the most likely to succeed? God didn’t. While we’re not God, maybe we should think about taking a risk. Because everyone–from most likely to least likely–deserves another chance to succeed.

(Jesse’s opinions expressed on this website are his own and not representative of the opinions of any agency where Jesse volunteers or works.)

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