No Quick Fixes

Posted on January 18, 2011

Ours is a culture of quick fixes. Learn a language in five minutes a day. Lose 14 pounds in 14 days. Become a millionaire by scratching a lottery ticket. We expect problems that have resulted from years of bad luck and bad habits to disappear overnight, and when one quick-fix doesn’t work, we quickly lose patience and move on to the next “sure thing.”

It was no surprise, then, that when Ted Williams burst into the headlines just after the new year, people expected a quick turnaround. Despite a very complicated history that included a decade of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and estrangement from family, the expectation was that he “take advantage” of all the opportunities that were flowing his way and “be good.” “Listen to your mom!” is what The Today Show’s Matt Lauer advised him.

It would have been enough to make anyone’s head spin. This individual went from living on the street and panhandling at traffic lights to having a new house and a lucrative broadcasting contract within a week. He went from invisible nobody to special guest on The Jimmy Fallon Show, Entertainment Tonight, and Dr. Phil in the blink of an eye. With so much invested in his success, people needed to believe that a “fairytale ending” was possible. Disappointment was not an option.

Did we really believe it was going to be that simple?

Less than ten days after skyrocketing to fame, Ted Williams was arrested for disorderly conduct and voluntarily admitted into rehab soon after. Of course, public reactions ran the gamut. “It is truly amazing that Americans always get sucked in by people like Williams. The man is a drunk and almost beyond hope.”  “I grew up with one of the best BS artists on the planet…Ted is about one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Others seemed to feel more compassion. “I am very happy that this homeless person is getting another chance in life: most homeless are more likely to win the [lottery] than to be given such a good chance. I wish him well.”

Regardless of whatever opinions and feelings we may have on the subject, one thing is certainly true. Chronic homelessness is not a quick fix. The spiral into homelessness is often exacerbated by a number of complicating factors, and it can take years. It only stands to reason that true recovery would also take years, and some people struggle with it for the remainder of their lives. Three decades of research tells us that people like Ted Williams can’t even begin to heal without the support and stability that permanent supportive housing offers.

So let’s not kid ourselves. The path is long and the issues are complex. If we are going to insist that people turn their lives around, it only makes sense that we invest our hopes and resources in the strategy that offers them the best chance of succeeding. With permanent supportive housing, we might not get that “fairytale ending” that we crave so much, but we can get something even better: an end to homelessness.

Walking To End Homelessness

Posted on October 12, 2010

This week’s blog was written by Cristina Wood, one of VSH’s fall communications interns.

Every year, Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Program sponsors a walkathon in D.C. The goal is to register as many walkers as possible, and to use the proceeds to fund their fight to prevent homelessness. But how do people who are homeless feel about this?

A couple years ago, I participated in the walk. For two and half miles, a throng of people march from Independence Avenue towards the Tidal Basin, and the year I happened to participate, it was pouring down rain. I walked along the route with some of my friends amongst the massive crowd, upset that I was drenched from head to toe. But I quickly remembered the reason we were walking –the people who have to sit outside in this rain every day because they don’t have a place to call home.

As I was nearing the finish line on the National Mall and the rain was easing up, the group I was with came upon a strip of sidewalk where at least 10 homeless people were asking for change. I watched as walker after walker, dressed in their unmistakable fluorescent orange “Help the Homeless” t-shirts, walked past these peoples’ outstretched hands and ignored them. They acted like they didn’t even exist.

One man sitting on the sidewalk began to yell, “You’ll walk for me, but you can’t spare a quarter? I walk day in, day out, how is you walking going to change anything?” Mumbles and groans of agreement from some of the other people around him heightened in volume.

I was disheartened that this man singlehandedly discounted what all of us were trying to do in one fell swoop. He couldn’t see that we were helping him indirectly, and that the money we all raised to walk was going to provide more programs and services for him. But from his perspective, a horde of people promenading through D.C. does not put food in his stomach or a roof over his head tonight.

However, although many of us give money to people who are homeless out of compassion, it often has the opposite effect of perpetuating their homelessness. So what is the right response? Rather than giving money, why not offer a sandwich or a few encouraging words? Direct them to shelters or programs they can take advantage of. Many organizations like VSH dedicate their time to making services available to the people who are homeless, and panhandlers should be be made aware of these options instead of prolonging their time on the streets. Donating your time or money to organizations like VSH is much more beneficial and effective in the long run.

Nonetheless, homeless people are just like you and me. We must not act like they are eyesores in our city’s scenery nor should we dehumanize them by pretending like they are not even there. It is a commendable act to donate to charities or help organizations indirectly, but showing you care about the homeless as you walk past them on the sidewalk is a whole different level of compassion. It gives them hope, which may be just what they need to get through another day.

Feeling guilty…don't

Posted on June 24, 2009

“You did what?” I remember my husband asking me incredulously when I told him I had given $20 to a woman asking for money outside the grocery store. “But, she really seemed genuine. I mean it was a very believable story,” I retorted defensively, all the while secretly kicking myself for being a sucker and realizing I had just been taken.

I have always considered myself a level-headed person with common sense and not a bleeding heart. So his reaction deeply bothered me. Why had I given the woman $20? Like thousands of other good-hearted Americans would — I believed her story, felt sorry for her and wanted to help.

I no longer give money to people who ask me on the street; and I don’t feel bad about it. Whether it’s triggered by substance abuse, mental illness, con artistry or honest misfortune, panhandling is not a healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t help the panhandler, sympathetic citizen or community. There also can be serious and deadly consequences of panhandling. A few years ago, one of the residents of the supportive housing apartments we operate was killed while panhandling. A motorist struck him on the median of a busy street. His needless, wasteful death could have been avoided.

So, why are people in our community still panhandling? The answer is not simple. Over the last fifteen years, our public income safety net for low-income single adults has been eroded. Many panhandlers have disabilities that prevent them from working, but they also have trouble navigating the bureaucratic maze to secure disability benefits. Others have multiple barriers to employment (limited education, lack of transportation) and have difficulty securing jobs that continue to migrate into the counties. Some have active and untreated problems with addiction. Lastly, the presence of con artists who see an easy mark in the sympathetic public cannot be discounted.

What can be done about it? Many communities have passed ordinances banning panhandlers, resulting in some arrests and upsetting civil libertarians. (Isn’t it our right as Americans to stand on a corner asking for a handout?) But that hasn’t stopped the problem.

Homeward, our regional coordinating body, whose mission is to reduce homelessness by initiating creative solutions and coordinating regional resources and services, recently got a grant for a marketing campaign to try and stop panhandling. They have launched a multi-level media campaign, trying to get citizens to stop giving to panhandlers and to invest in local non-profits like VSH who are providing solutions for people with very low incomes.

For panhandlers who are homeless, some community resources exist. Richmond has 1,000 shelter and transitional housing beds for those who are homeless; we serve meals daily; and we have a program for people with substance abuse problems, The Healing Place, that is peer driven and takes into account the fact that people relapse numerous times before they become serious about recovering. VSH also has an array of permanent supportive housing programs for individuals who’ve experienced homelessness.

Panhandling actually undermines the work that we do. So, if you do feel the need to help panhandlers, tell them where they can eat or sleep for free, get them to one of the many non-profit agencies that exist to help folks like them, or donate to a non-profit to invest in providing real solutions to these difficult community problems. We are here, not to enable people, but to empower them.

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