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Why We Fight For Those Who Are Homeless

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness, Poverty

As we close out another year of hard work towards ending homelessness, we reflect on our struggles, our successes and our inspiration to keep pushing forward.  Here, Yvonne Vissing, PhD, National Coalition for the Homeless Board Member, reflects on why we keep fighting:

“We are the National Coalition for the Homeless.  We give our time, our energy, our talents, our resources and our money to make sure everyone has a home. Why do we do this?  We give generously of ourselves because we believe that home is the singular foundation that supports us, protects us, and enables us to build better lives and a better world.   A home can be a physical structure where we can store foods and cook nutritious meals so our bodies will be strong.  It is a place where we can get clean so we can stay healthy. Homes ideally have a safe and comfortable space where we can curl up when we are tired, sick, and weary, where we can close our eyes and revitalize ourselves so we can get up and live another day.  A house is a physical place and space. A house and a home can be similar, but they are not necessarily the same.

Photo thanks to pillowhead designs on Flickr

A home is far more than walls and refrigerators and beds.  While “a house is made of walls and beams, a home is built with love and dreams.”  A home is where people care for us, listen to us, help us, and believe in us. Home is where our values are born and where our futures are paved.  “Home is where the heart is” is a commonly held notion, and people think of home as the place where they grew up, played, laughed, and shared fond memories. Children need a home to give them a good start in life, since “home is where one starts from,” as T. S. Eliot reminds us.   What children get in the home sets them up for the rest of their lives. Our nation’s original leaders knew this; Benjamin Franklin reminded us that “a house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.”  Home is where we have the space to think, to read, to reflect, to work and to plan. It is the place where we may become loved and accepted for whatever we are.  Home comforts us when things don’t go well and celebrates our joys and accomplishments.

Sometimes people may have shelter but no sense of security. Their struggles of fighting to survive, to hold a job, to have enough to eat and a place to sleep may be exhausting and enormous. The pressures associated with lack may be overwhelming and lead us down a path filled with problems and despair.  The social forces associated with poverty may rip families apart and etch in the minds of children a picture of reality in which they are not enough and the world doesn’t care for or about them. Children may not have a mental place where they can go to be safe or build dreams.  They may suffer from a lack of belonging.  Physical homelessness breeds emotional homelessness, and neither type is good for individuals or the world.

What happens in the home doesn’t stay in the home. When children live in a sense of abundance they can grow forward to spread it around to others; when they are deprived they will require assistance to merely survive.   We are all interconnected. One person’s sense of lack inevitably impacts us; we pay for others not having or being “enough” with our own money, time, energy, and resources. The biggest way lack hurts us is by creating a skewed way of thinking about things, ourselves, and each other. The result is that our world suffers from the creation of a host of preventable social problems.   Conversely, every act of loving kindness and generosity nurtures the heart and makes the world a better place. Confucius said that the strength of a nation is derived from the integrity of the home. Growing strong children brings forth strong societies. We don’t need a crystal ball to show us what will happen if all levels of society don’t step up to help children and families – the result is inevitable and unpleasantly clear.

We are the National Coalition for the Homeless.  We fight for people who are downtrodden because the integrity of society depends upon someone having a voice for those whose plight is ignored or discounted.  We fight for the homeless because we believe in our nation’s underlying principle of equality. We believe that each person should be treated with respect. We fight for democracy-in-action so those deemed the least among us may have the same chances as those who are regarded as best. We fight for the homeless because our nation can’t build a strong house without investing in the human foundation. We believe that homelessness is unacceptable for any citizen of the United States of America.  We fight for those who are homeless because others can’t, won’t or don’t. We hope that each citizen, organization, and governmental leader will join us in a new partnership to ensure our nation’s mandate of liberty and justice for all.”

Guest post: What are the implications of drug testing recipients of government benefits?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Criminalization, Poverty

We are happy to share today’s guest post from NCH member Laura Epstein who interned with us this past summer.  Laura is currently studying Government and Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College.

Recently, many states have introduced policies that would require drug tests for welfare recipients, as reported by the New York Times. States hope that these new policies will be more “fair” and will cut the budget. However, studies show that these policies are ineffective and hurt those who need the most help.

Though some argue that these programs are better because they restrict welfare only to those who want it enough to stop using drugs, this argument fails to take into account why those in poverty would use drugs in the first place. In the 2002 study, “Substance Use Among Welfare Recipients: Trends and Policy Responses” by Harold Pollack and others found that “adverse experiences, such as childhood trauma or experiences of violence, may lead some women both to seek welfare and to initiate or to increase their substance use.” Therefore, restricting welfare recipients harms more than just those who choose to use drugs; it hurts those who experience both poverty and prior abuse.

Pollack expressed his unchanging beliefs, as in a 2011 blog post he wrote, “[Alcohol and drug] disorders are important within specific populations – most crucially, welfare recipients facing child abuse or neglect issues.” Laura Schmidt, in the 1998 Alcohol Research Group study “Substance Abuse and the Course of Welfare Dependency,” had similar findings: “AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] recipients’ substance abuse problems appeared to have little effect on their future prospects for leaving welfare…. the strongest determinants of welfare dependency…correspond quite directly to…the economic hardships of single parents and their young children.” Quite simply, the argument that new welfare policies requiring drug tests just hurt those who choose to irresponsibly use drugs makes little sense.

Furthermore, the new welfare laws fail to provide means for people to have substance abuse treatment. In response to the New York Times article mentioned above, Director and President of the Legal Action Center New York wrote, “The vast majority of testing legislation also fails to allocate money for treatment, even though it is an extremely efficient use of taxpayer money.” Not surprisingly, in a 2000 study, “Sever Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders among Former Supplemental Security Income Beneficiaries for Drug Addiction and Alcoholism, Dr. James Swartz and others found that “studies of former welfare recipients…have found that substance dependence and psychiatric illness are among the most notable barriers to gaining and maintaining employment.” Welfare reform that encompasses treatment and job training would be much more effective at improving the livelihood of those in poverty than removing all assistance from those with drug problems.

The “Housing First” method of ending homelessness also contributes to the arguments against drug testing welfare recipients. Under this method, those experiencing homelessness can begin to receive transitional housing and job training without first becoming sober. It is much easier for someone to become sober when in a hospitable environment as opposed to when living in the streets without much food or other needs. Requiring welfare recipients to first have a negative drug test is directly at odds with the successful method of Housing First. In a 2010 presentation to the Society for Social Work and Research Annual Conference, Benjamin Henwood found that “Housing First providers were able to focus more on clinical concerns since consumers and already obtained permanent housing.” Housing First programs recognize that facilitating a person’s successful recovery and employment opportunities requires assistance to put the person’s life back on track. Housing First contributes to the argument that welfare services as a whole must meet people at their level of need, including potential substance abuse.

Luckily, some of the new welfare laws have been deemed unconstitutional. However, we cannot rely on the courts to ensure that these laws do not have effect. These new laws should not pass in the first place because they disproportionately hurt those in society who need the most help in finding employment to move out of needing welfare.

*Studies show that only 20-30% of the homeless population suffers from substance abuse.  It is often the case that people believe the majority of people who are on the streets suffer from substance abuse, but lack of affordable housing remains the number one cause of homelessness. Read more from Jaqueline Dowd, Poverty Lawyer, on how advocates are pushing to make drug-testing welfare recipients illegal.

Feeding vs. Foodsharing

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Food Insecurity, Poverty

The National Coalition for the Homeless differentiates between feeding the homeless – objectifying the hungry as simply needing to be fed – and food sharing. The sharing of one’s meal with another is to participate in the mutual fulfillment of the human need to feed both in body and soul. It is the difference between blindly providing resources and services to someone and breaking bread with them.

The religious connotations of breaking bread are profound: Moses told the Israelites to break unleavened bread with each other during the Passover, Jesus broke bread with his disciples both at the Last Supper and again following his death as their risen Lord. The ancient Greeks would invite random travelers homes for a meal, fearing offending them in case they were gods. Zen Buddhists practice a tea ceremony with guests as a way to achieve enlightenment together. Each of these examples provide cultural or religious guidance for going out of one’s way to satisfy the needs of another person, often at the lower end of a power dynamic. In the relationship between host and guest, breaking bread as a way of sharing an experience with someone is to achieving spiritual fulfillment or accompaniment, as expressed in Liberation Theology.

Liberation Theology developed as a Christian movement in Latin America against traditional forms of foreign aid and charity. Its central thesis was to return to the roots of what Jesus taught about the preferential option for the poor, believing that the poor must be the focus in every Christian endeavor. This focus is enacted through the concept of accompaniment, which argues that charity must be a shared experience. The giver must give in solidarity with the recipient, and the recipient must take an active role in their liberation from poverty. In a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, Prof. Paul Farmer, a noted Harvard University anthropologist and physician explains that accompaniment derives from the breaking of bread together or ad cum panis.  

We are reminded further of the practice and concept of accompaniment through the life of Saint Francis. During the event of his religious conversion, St. Francis de-clothed in the public square, denounced his father’s fortune and adopted a life of poverty. Later in life, after being relieved of his possessions during a roadside robbery, he responded by stripping off his shoes and cloak and offering the robber his last possessions. St. Francis’ life was a true example of sharing one’s possessions most fully, the epitome of accompaniment or breaking bread with the poor.

In recent years, the concept of charity and service has lost much of its focus on the individual being served and unfortunately has shifted its focus to giving credit to the provider. Food sharing allows us to rebalance our relationship with charity and accompaniment, allowing us to once again see those who receive our offerings as blessed and occupying a role that enables the giver to better themselves spiritually.

Realigning oneself with charity and services provides the giver a greater appreciation for themselves and those they serve. At the same time, it allows the receiver to be an active participant in their own liberation. This relationship between the server and served is described beautifully in the Jewish Tzedakah. The philosophy describes charity as a partnership between those who possess and whose in need – the relationship of host and guest, as two who break bread together.

As a homeless advocate, the relationship to services and charity – the ability to break bread as equals -has profound consequences to the way in which we do our work. Within the framework of accompaniment, homeless services must become about quality, love, and sacrifice, rather than quantity, efficiency, and image. We must unlearn the concept of “feeding the homeless,” and take on the mindset of sharing our food with those experiencing homelessness.

By Hunter Scott, Fall 2011 Intern

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