Skip to main content

American extremes: responses to homelessness in the United States

The United States is a land of extremes. Over the past decade I have travelled to Washington, New York and Boston to visit homelessness projects and the American experience has never failed to both inspire and appal. 

In 2003, supported by a grant from the London Housing Foundation, I visited New York with a group from London to investigate how not-for-profit organisations working with the City Authority were tackling homelessness. In a crowded week we ricocheted between the distressingly dreadful and the utterly uplifting. On Manhattan’s East Side we visited the 850-bed Bellevue shelter, an intake shelter for New York’s most chaotic and vulnerable people. Security guards outnumbered support staff. Under blankets, in crowded dormitories men moaned and whimpered.  Whist speaking to the manager in her office, one of those moments arrived which encapsulates an experience.  A resident, eyes caste down in embarrassment, entered to request the loan of a toilet roll. This was not a place where you could expect to retain your dignity.    

The most brutal manifestations of homelessness in the United States – rough sleeping and life within the shelter system - come with numbers which are gigantic in comparison with UK figures. The single night January 2012 street count in New York found 3,262 rough sleepers, more than six times the figure for London. The October 2012 statistics show that there were 46,146 individuals in New York shelters, including 9,725 families with children. 

Progression through the shelter system is a highly selective process with intake shelters such as Bellvue providing the first point of entry and staff from the not-for-profit organisations visiting and selecting from the intake shelters people who are appropriate for their projects, based primarily on support needs and motivation. For some the selection bar was clearly set too high, creating a desperate homeless underclass churning around the shelter system unable to take the next step on the pathway towards rehabilitation.

Yet the United States experience can be unforgettably uplifting and a visit to the Fortune Society in Harlem became for me nothing less than a moment of epiphany. The Fortune Society provides accommodation and support for offenders recently discharged from prison, many of whom had been literally bussed from the prison gates and off-loaded in central Manhattan. The accommodation was spotless and the programmes convincingly life-changing. The young salaried staff member showing us around was infectiously enthusiastic, evidently held in high regard by the residents and impressively authoritative as he gave an overview of the project. At some point he casually noted that he was not only an ex-offender himself but still a user of services at the Fortune Society.  As we delved further, it emerged that around 70% of the work-force comprised ex-offenders who had initially come to the Fortune Society as service users.

Later, after meeting the Fortune Society’s inspirational Chief Executive JoAnne Page, I squirreled away in my memory some of her phrases to contemplate further, including ‘we screen for one thing only – motivation’ in response to my scepticism about whether the organisation simply creamed off the most able to join the work-force. She talked freely about the ‘mother lode of talent’ to be found among service users and of the unquantifiable benefits derived from having colleagues who were living, breathing role models to inspire and transform new arrivals coming through the door of the Fortune Society.

On our return to London we put in place a programme to develop former service users so that they could successfully compete for and secure jobs at Thames Reach. It needed an utterly new approach to recruitment and a cultural adjustment within the organisation which, although we might have denied it, was operating on a rigid ‘us and them’ basis. Now around 67 of my colleagues, 22% of the workforce, are former service users, a transformation which has made us an immeasurably better, healthier organisation.  

This example illustrates a broader point about the approach taken by the most progressive homelessness organisations in the United States. Homelessness is, of course, about a lack of home and the shelter system graphically illustrates the miserable consequences of not having a settled base. But the American model starts from the position that a more fundamental change has to take place in the individual. There is a conviction that people should work, contribute and not rely on the ultimately demeaning and unfulfilling patchwork of subsidies and handouts that provides a considerably flimsier safety net than the current UK equivalent. Aspirations stretch higher, expectations are greater and a sense of entitlement, often in my experience the fog that bedevils candid self-reflection, virtually absent in the United States context. 

There is also a strong belief in rebuilding relationships with family and friends, reflecting a determination to return to natural support networks and avoid a lifetime of dependency on specialist support services. ‘Where do they move on to?’ I asked when visiting a drug rehabilitation project in Washington.  Mostly back to their families was the answer – where else?  

So that’s my ambivalent American experience. I feel profoundly indebted to the soaring, transformational belief in the capacity of people to change that seems part of the American psyche and I have been, at times, astonished to witness homeless Americans lost in a pitiless system from which there seems little chance of escape. Whether there is somehow a way of fusing together the best approaches from either side of the Atlantic is, as they say, the million dollar question.     


  

 This blog was published in Inside Housing on 12th October 2012



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We need evidence-based action to end rough sleeping, not post-truth emotional spasms

In my first year working with homeless people an older colleague, with foreboding, informed me that the homeless people we were supporting were more complex, challenging and needy than anybody had previously experienced.  I remember being shocked, considering it remarkable that I should be starting at the very time when the profile of the homeless population was changing so dramatically. It didn’t occur to me to ask ‘how do you know?’ 
Every year since, I have heard something like this same statement made. I was therefore not in a condition to be knocked down by a feather when, as a predictable pre-Christmas truism, it was stated that those working with the homeless were encountering an unprecedented increase in ‘the range of complex issues’. Wiser now, I understand that what I first heard those thirty years ago was hyperbole.      
A degree of embellishment in the context of such an emotive issue as homelessness is, perhaps, inevitable. However, when hyperbole descends into factual mis…

Outreach work - not taking no for an answer

There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.  Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the skateboarders at London’s South Bank.  They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti.  So much life and energy where there was once misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the greatest number of rough sleepers could be found.  By the late 1980s, following some misguided and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist architecture of the South Bank.  In the evening, huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall and wait for the arrival of the first soup run.
I was one of the outreach wo…

Street homelessness: The dangerous appeal of the street magnets

Amongst the front-line staff at Thames Reach, those undertaking outreach work on the street or managing our hostels for rough sleepers, there is always a sense of relief when the Christmas period is behind them. 
Christmas is a time when we can expect a surge in support from the public and, concurrently, there is also an increased risk of people dying on the street. This is because so much of the public’s seasonal largesse is focused on giving to people who are visibly present on the street and, in order to be in the position to be a recipient, those who have moved away from rough sleeping will often return to the street at Christmas. 
In late November, a Big Issue seller I follow who is active on Twitter tweeted that he had been forced to move from his usual pitch outside a supermarket because an intimidating former rough sleeper, now housed, had requisitioned it for the lucrative Christmas period.  Outreach workers meanwhile pay special attention to the vulnerable, often drug depend…