Even though the liberal and progressive policies initiated in the 1960s and 70s did effectively reduce poverty and homelessness in America, they also created a system that insists poverty be resolved almost exclusively through the political agencies of the federal and state governments.
To be clear, the extent of poverty in America is much more than local communities can deal with on their own. The need for federal intervention is therefore not based on a political philosophy – as many claim – it’s a necessity. But anti-poverty policies too often isolate people in poverty and force them to work through an insulated, technocratic bureaucracy that most people receiving assistance call “social services.”
In 2009, after caring for a terminally ill parent, I became homeless and destitute due to circumstances beyond my control. Social Services provided Special Response Emergency Housing, a motel room. Motel owners located where I live on the Jersey Shore subsidize their incomes during the off-season (winter) by taking in ‘clients’ from Social Services.
So I am in a motel room in a seasonally deserted town I’m unfamiliar with and told that I have three months to find permanent housing. Social Services would provide rental assistance through a federal permanent housing program if I could find an apartment owner willing to accept this arrangement.
I soon found out that most apartment owners would not take me in under these circumstances, for three purported reasons. One, they claimed that if they took me in then they’d be legally obligated to take in anyone Social Services sends to them; and, two, they said Emergency Housing Assistance is unreliable and they take forever to pay rents. Also, as I would soon learn myself, Social Services is notorious for arbitrarily changing its policy regarding housing assistance.
Most people in a situation like I was in give up and return to whatever it is they were trying to get away from – abusive spouses, violently dysfunctional families, drug- and crime-infested neighborhoods. And then there are those – such as the survivors of natural disasters, and those who lost jobs and had homes foreclosed, and veterans who were denied benefits – who have no place to return to and all too frequently end up wandering the streets during the day and setting up tents on public land at night. Because these people are no longer enrolled in any housing program, this is a statistical ‘success’ by the officials administering the program, even as the number of homeless people rises. This is a cynical misuse of tax-payer money and a betrayal of the public trust in Social Services to work on behalf of the members of our communities facing financial crises and housing insecurity.
While I was still in my home and recovering from the loss of my mother, I became a member of a small nondenominational church that administered a community homeless outreach program. Local apartment owners utilized the outreach as a way of ‘screening’ prospective renters. They were willing to rent to people with rent subsidies, but first they wanted to be assured that they are not opening their doors to former rent truants, violent criminals, drug users, or other problematic tenants.
That’s how I secured ‘permanent’ housing within three months. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had not been able to combine federal government assistance with community support.
But then I received a letter from The Board Ocean County Social Services last year informing me that the “permanent” housing program I was in was being terminated. No explanation was given; no recourse offered. Trying to find alternatives before I became homeless, I applied to several federal affordable housing facilities. Miraculously, it seemed, just a few days after being told I no longer had an affordable, permanent place to live, I received a letter informing me that an affordable housing unit was available.
People assume that my local social services board coordinated this move. They didn’t. If you are fortunate enough to find a Social Services case worker who is helpful in assisting you with obtaining SNAP benefits and other basic necessities, as I was, they are still powerless over influencing the outcome of your ‘permanent’ housing situation. Critical decisions about that are made arbitrarily; and not only to your chagrin, but to that of the caseworker who invested time and energy trying to secure your housing. These kinds of practices are detrimental not only to the morale of Social Services’ clients, but to its workforce. It’s a top down problem, not a bottom up one. We need social services, and we need the people who administer them to do a better job of providing programs and policies that work in people’s lives.
I work with the homeless outreach in my former community; but seeing as I am a firm believer that poverty and homelessness are both national and local issues, I am in the process of developing an outreach for the poor and homeless in my new community.
When we hear from people who have experienced poverty, we get better policy. For example, no one who has lived in acute financial distress would have ever come up with a solution as inane as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Can you imagine? “Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll make the process of obtaining assistance more complicated and in the end provide fewer people with less assistance for a shorter period of time!” Sure, people flew off “the rolls” -- and right into the woods, onto subway platforms and, pen ultimately, into hospital emergency rooms. So many have had their lives cut short because of this. .
Someone recently asked me what my first priority would be for policy reform, and this is it: lobby to get a member of the community who has experienced social service programs such as Emergency Housing Assistance, SNAP, or TANF, on the Board of Social Services. This, I feel, is the only way we can begin to get social service representatives to better understand the needs of their ‘clients’, and to be held more accountable for their policies and actions.
What we need is another movement back to people power. One that provides low-income individuals with the political wherewithal they need to stand up on their own . In the same way we’ve done it through the legal system for immigrants living in an existential Limbo, and through the justice system for married couples denied their civil rights. Now we need to find a way to do the same for people living in poverty. Economic viability and housing security are human rights.