Five years after Nashville adopted a 10-year plan to eliminate chronic homelessness in the city, the number of homeless has doubled and the city has fallen woefully short of its ambitious goals to create housing, offer services and improve the lives of the homeless.
While I am no expert on homelessness (nor do I play one on TV), as a pastor whose church sponsors a Room in the Inn program, who works regularly at Community Care Fellowship, and who receives requests for assistance on a daily basis, I have a better than average familiarity with the issue. I think anyone who spends their days in a helping profession could tell you that what we are doing isn’t working. That isn’t to say that there aren’t noble efforts to help the homeless through organizations like CCF and The Campus for Human Development (the latter led by Charlie Strobel, a man who should receive his sainthood well before the pope), but they are simply bandages on the larger issues that lead folks into homelessness, and there is no volunteer based charitable organization that can have the resources need to move folks away from the streets.
What worries me the most about this recent evaluation of our efforts to deal with homelessness is a seeming unwillingness to see this as a societal problem for which our governing structures have a responsibility. Much of the article talks about the need for private funding to step up to deal with the issue, but never really addresses the budget cuts at the Metro Government level that undermine the ability of our homeless services providers to provide those services. At one point last year there was a proposal to cut $150,000 from The Campus for Human Development budget (something I believe was restored eventually) by the Mayor’s office, and social services as a whole in the city have received the lion’s share of budget cuts. That leads to the inability of our systems to handle the problem, and Phillips notes:
Support services are stretched thin, and a shortage of case managers is so crippling that only 400 homeless people have been housed, while more than 4,000 are now on Nashville’s streets every night. In 2005, the number of homeless in Nashville usually averaged about 2,000, [Commissioner Howard] Gentry said.
The shortage of case managers may be, in my opinion of course, the key problem in dealing with homelessness in our city, for I believe that at least 75% of the chronically homeless are low functioning or mentally ill. These are persons who struggle to cope with the stuff of real life, the pressures and stress that you and I negotiate on a daily basis, so that life on the streets seems preferable to the alternative. Having persons that can help them deal with the details, who can wade through the morass of government regulations, who can ensure that they are getting their medication or can help them move into treatment, is key to their success in getting off the streets. For many of these folks, their identities (their definitions of who they are) is so connected with their homelessness that we are asking nothing less than a complete transformation of the psyche to get them to settle into “normal” life, and that transformation doesn’t come simply by putting them up in a one room apartment. This takes skilled and committed persons working to help the homeless transition from one way of life to another. Providing persons with those skills and commitment is not something an independent non-profit can do. It takes the resources of a city working seriously to address it’s problems to make the commitment toward addressing the issue in a comprehensive way.
That costs money – real money, not a few scraps thrown here and there, and frankly we as a people continue to live under the illusion that we can ignore these problems and underfund our government. Trust me, I don’t like paying higher taxes anymore than the next guy, but we will never deal with our lacking in education, public safety, and social services until we are able to provide more stable and dedicated funding streams to deal with these issues.
After all, we are failing, and do we really want to be known throughout the country as a failing city?