A better way to help the homeless

 Imagine there are a lot of people who have heart disease hanging out at Lincoln Library – and every day patrons have to walk by people having heart attacks and strokes, or wheezing and coughing from congestive heart failure. They won’t – or can’t – go to the hospital and no one knows where else to send them. The issue becomes so disruptive that a rule is proposed: If you are having a heart attack after 9 p.m., you can’t be on library grounds. But that won’t work. Then a new idea emerges – why don’t we just open another emergency room where people can go? Surely that will solve the problem of heart disease in Springfield.

Such a plan wouldn’t do much overall to decrease rates of heart disease. Treating heart disease through emergency departments alone is the most expensive, ineffective approach. Chronic disease prevention and management are also key.

While the analogy is loose, homelessness has much in common with chronic disease. It’s usually a tangle of bad choices and uncontrollable factors, many of which started with childhood trauma. It’s a community and individual issue with substantial financial and human costs. People become – and stay – homeless for complex reasons.

Until we understand homelessness, we will punish people or devise knee-jerk reactions – such as “Let’s open up the Winter Warming Center in July!” Such punitive or reactionary approaches often increase rates of homelessness.

A Low-Barrier Emergency Shelter, as a part of a fully functional Crisis Response System, is a proven strategy to help unsheltered people (like the citizens who are staying at the library). A Crisis Response System has five essential components: Outreach, Prevention/Diversion, Coordinated Entry (a community-wide system of identifying and housing people), Low-Barrier Emergency/Transitional Shelter and Affordable Permanent Housing.

An effective Low-Barrier Shelter acts as the entry point into the system – it quickly triages and stabilizes people who are in crisis and gets them safely housed as fast as possible. People can stay there, but just as importantly it diverts people from homelessness who may be in temporary crisis. It is called “low barrier” because as much as possible it eliminates reasons why people are turned away from the shelter, such as actively using drugs or alcohol, unmanaged mental health issues or a criminal record. Many shelters cannot accept clients who have unmanaged mental health issues and/or are actively using drugs or alcohol because the shelter is not staffed or structured to do so safely.

Currently the Winter Warming Center (WWC) is the closest thing Springfield has to a low-barrier shelter. And while the WWC certainly has been an asset to our community to serve people who are homeless, it’s a “meal and mat” operation. Because of the building, limited funding and seasonal schedule, it cannot function as effectively as a low-barrier shelter should. Therefore, we must transform the WWC into something better.

When we look at the components of a Crisis Response System, Springfield is doing a few things right. Our collaborative outreach efforts are strong, and we soon will have a Coordinated Entry system.

Two parts of the Crisis Response System require development, though. We must create a year-round Low-Barrier Emergency Shelter that is staffed and structured appropriately. The second, and equally critical factor, is more affordable permanent housing in Springfield.

Implementing a fully-functioning Crisis Response System is a challenge. But, if we are serious as a community about helping people who are homeless, it is necessary. And it is possible.

Most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

Erica Smith is the executive director of Helping Hands of Springfield. Helping Hands operates a 365-day a year men’s shelter, and has been a partnering agency to operate the Winter Warming Center (previously known as the Springfield Overflow Shelter).

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