Posted on February 16, 2010
I have asked Katie VanArnam, VSH’s Director of Housing Access Programs, to write this week’s blog. Katie is a licensed clinical social worker with more than 10 years of experience providing direct services and administrative functions in a variety of non-profit and Government agencies. She holds an MSW degree from Virginia Commonwealth University with a dual concentration in Clinical Services and Administration. Katie directs the A Place To Start program along with two other housing programs. Thanks, Alice
I recently had the opportunity to see some friends from high school. It had been many years since I had seen these ladies and we have all gone our different ways in life. One is a school teacher, one a lawyer, one is a successful business woman and then there is me, the social worker.
After a few days of reacquainting ourselves, we started talking about our chosen professions and the challenges we face on a daily basis. I gave a brief synopsis of the job I do and those who receive services from the programs I oversee. My three friends listened intently, and then one asked, “What do you do about the people who just choose to be homeless? Why don’t they get help?” The question was asked in a very “innocent” fashion and my friend was simply trying to get a better understanding of those I serve.
In formulating my response, it occurred to me that no one really chooses to be homeless. In some cases, people make choices that contribute to their housing crisis, often resulting in the loss of their housing. However, I do not believe that these people are really choosing to be homeless.
Encarta Dictionary defines “choosing” as deciding among a range of options or making a deliberate decision. In the majority of cases, people who have fallen into homelessness do not have a range of options. While the causes of homelessness are many, the solutions are numbered. A “choice” may include entering the shelter system, finding new affordable housing or living on the streets.
While the shelter system in Richmond has come a long way, this system is not an ideal option for many experiencing homelessness. The rules, expectations, communal living situation and schedules can be very difficult to manage. This can be especially true for those who are suffering from an active addiction, have a physical disability, have male teenage children and/or are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness. Shelter is not a choice for everyone.
Many believe … ” if they would just get a job, they could afford housing”. In Richmond, the fair market rent (a rent that is considered to be “fair” and average for a unit) for a one bedroom unit is $832. This means that a single individual who is working full time and earning minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) would have to pay about 90 percent of their take-home pay just to cover the cost of rent. Rent does not include any other costs or expenses. According to Homeward, the region’s coordinating body for homeless services, 25.8 percent of the homeless population IS currently working; 50 percent of these employed individuals are working full time.
What happens when “just getting a job” is not a choice? The fairly recent economic downturn has left a considerable amount of the American population unemployed, making the job market even more competitive. Many people who are homeless have been forced into “choosing” to live on the streets, “choosing” to live in cars and “choosing” to sleep in abandoned buildings and on park benches. They have simply “chosen” from the only option they were given.
As I explained this to my friend, I could see the realization in her face. The next time you see someone experiencing homelessness, and you will see them if you choose to look, ask yourself, what choice did they have?