• Erica Smith

This is all of us: Helping our neighbors at the library

This blog article is Part 3 in a three-part series about the WWC and why a “shelter and stuff” alone approach doesn’t work to address the issue of homelessness.

If you’ve been to Lincoln Library lately, you have noticed there are many people there who stay overnight. Many of the people there are homeless and may had been staying at the Winter Warming Center during the winter months. A question we’re all asking is: What do we do about all these people?

The answer is both simple and complex: We help them become housed.

How do we do that? Here is what we at Helping Hands believe:

1. We need smart shelter services.

We must have emergency shelters with front doors that are easy to enter, even if you aren’t sober or you have a mental health condition, or you are chronically homeless for a lot of reasons do not typically engage with services. This is what it means to be “low barrier” – that we make it as easy as possible to access shelter for anyone who needs it.

The shelter exit door is just as important as the front door is, and that exit should lead straight to housing.

Right now Springfield does not have enough easily accessible shelter or (more importantly) housing. It’s also why – and this is hard to write – we would do more harm than good to just open a bunch of shelter beds without getting in place our strategy to house people. Emergency shelter with a front door, but no exit to housing, keeps people stuck in homelessness.

This is where Springfield is right now and there are a lot of things that have happened that have led us to this place. And while that is not an answer that appeals to us when people are sleeping at the library tonight, we also know that more knee-jerk charity is not going to get people housed.

We can set this up to work and help people, or we can keep spending incredible amounts of money on reactive, unsustainable approaches (such as the Winter Warming Center) that no longer meet the needs of our neighbors without homes.

The approach we are advocating for is not simply another shelter. It is an integrated Center that addresses community health and housing needs in one location. It is a resource for everyone – not just for “the homeless” – but any member of our community who needs mental health care, primary health care, and help staying housed or becoming housed.

Other cities around us have made this happen. Springfield can too. We’re not resource-poor; we’re strategy-poor. But this first step is to stop blaming each other and start working smart together.

2. We must develop a community strategy that focuses on housing.

If our short-term strategy is increasing access to smart, safe shelter, we must simultaneously create more housing for people to move into. Our long-term strategy is that we will get people housed and move the bulk of our resources from reactive services (emergency shelter) to stable solutions (permanent housing). We will always need reactive services when people are in crisis; but the goal is to stabilize through housing to prevent and resolve crisis as quickly as possible.

That means when we encounter people who need help with housing, we accurately and immediately offer them appropriate resources. The Crisis Response System can help us as a community because this is all of us.

The first goal is to prevent people from being homeless in the first place. So, if you are at risk of homelessness, our goal is to empower you to get the resources you need to stay housed. If you do experience homelessness, we help you figure out how you can become housed as fast as possible so you do not get stuck in shelter. This approach is called “rapid-rehousing.” Rapid-rehousing works for most people who experience homelessness because most people just need a “jump start.” That means finding another job, getting a few months of rent assistance, paying an old utility bill, etc.

The second goal is to increase permanent supported housing for people who are chronically homeless or who have more complex issues underneath their homelessness (mental or physical health issues/disabilities with co-occurring substance use disorders, etc.). This is where it’s at because shelter is a basic need. You can’t begin to think about anything else in your life until you are secure that you have food, clothing, and shelter that is adequate and stable.

Housing is the foundation that allows you to re-build your life. As a community, let’s give everyone the opportunity to have the foundation they need for better health, wellness, and overall quality of life.

If you would like to be a part of a strategy to address homelessness through housing, attend a community forum on Thursday, May 9 at 10:30 a.m. at Lincoln Library. To see event details, click here. Secondly, you are invited to attend our Heartland Continuum of Care meetings. They are held the third Thursday of the month at 9 a.m. at Helping Hands of Springfield (1023 E. Washington). Visit www.heartlandcontinuum.com for more information.

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