I believe that everyone who is really aware of homelessness and/or homeless people wants to see an end to homelessness. Nobody wants to end it more than those who’ve been “literally homeless,” e.g. slept in shelters, on the streets, or other places “not meant for human habitation,” and those who care about them. That includes those of us who have worked for years (or decades) to help homeless people break the cycle of streets, shelters, emergency rooms, and, for far too many, jails. It’s even more important to those of us who have lost too many to the concrete killing fields of homelessness. But we also understand, all too well, how complicated homelessness is, how much money it will take, and how long it will take to adequately address the myriad of issues that create and perpetuate homelessness.
I don’t believe that we can end it by simply changing the criteria under which we determine whether it’s ended. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 4th edition defines “end” to mean over— finished— concluded—ceased to exist—stopped–done away with. And I don’t believe that it can be ended by announcing that it’s ended in a city or state as long as there are homeless people sleeping on the streets and/or in shelters–regardless of how much progress has been made in that city or state.
More importantly, would this man (photographed as he slept on the plaza outside City Hall in Memphis during one of the many midnight street counts that I participated in) believe he was homeless if he were to be found sleeping like this on the streets of one of the cities where homelessness has been “ended”?
I don’t believe that homelessness will be ended simply because people who want so much to end it set a goal of ending it, found it impossible to meet the deadlines (for perfectly understandable reasons), but still want to call attention to the exceptional work that’s been done in reducing homelessness in a city or state. What I do believe is that we owe it to homeless people and the general public to exhibit the kind of integrity that we expect (or desperately want) from our local, state, and federal governments.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, where I was so proud to serve as a program analyst for six years during the 1990’s, recently released their description of “What it Means to End Homelessness”
“An end to homelessness does not mean that no one will ever experience a housing crisis again. Changing economic realities, the unpredictability of life, and unsafe or unwelcoming family environments may create situations where individuals, families, or youth could experience or be at-risk of homelessness. An end to homelessness means that every community will have a systematic response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible or is otherwise a rare, brief, and non-recurring experience.”
That’s not what I think an end to homelessness means and I think there are a lot more reasons for homelessness. But for starters, I’ll take Webster’s definition. What do you think?