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“Press”-ing for a Way Out of Homelessness

September 13, 2010

by Abby Strunk, Executive Director, Street Sense

Last month, I started a new job with Street Sense, and am excited to be a part of an organization that gives homeless men and women an opportunity to earn their income and make strides in reaching their long-term goals.

Having worked in various capacities with homeless shelters and service providers in DC over the past few years, I continually have been surprised by the exclusion of income-earning and self-sufficiency in planning.  I recall a recent Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting, where I planned to advocate for the inclusion of employment in the Plan to End Homelessness.  Expecting to find apathy in local government and community leaders who felt that employment was “just not core to ending homelessness,” I found that the words I’d prepared were unnecessary, preempted by homeless adults collectively and loudly voicing their unwillingness to accept a plan without employment.

I was proud of our homeless community. They asked not for hand-outs, nor charity, nor sympathy, but for jobs. Standing up for their basic need to work, they truly captured the American spirit of resilience, strength, self sufficiency, and drive. They rejected the bureaucratic “quick fix” offered by well-intentioned, but ill-equipped groups that reduce human beings to cases, rendering them endlessly dependent on a dysfunctional system.  They demanded to be given opportunities to work, to become self sufficient, and to become productive members of society.

Street Sense is not alone in its fight to combat poverty in a truly sustainable way. Programs like the Perry School and N Street Village use holistic development models based on goal-setting and creation of opportunity. Rather than enabling destructive behaviors, programs that expect and foster independence empower those experiencing homelessness. Back on My Feet is an organization that promotes the self-sufficiency of homeless populations by engaging them in running as a means to confidence, strength and self-esteem. These intangibles, while not easily achieved with monetary donations or waiting lists, are at the heart of what we are trying to achieve in our efforts. Simply housing people, with few supportive services or built-in expectations, is not enough to end homelessness or the emotional, physical, and psychological effects both leading to and resulting from it.

As providers and supporters of the homeless community, it is not easy to promote accountability in the population we serve, and it is certainly not easy to work together. In a city that is, in many ways, defined by debt, polarized classism, and a culture of cyclical poverty, the challenge of addressing individual needs and struggles can be daunting.  Current policies assume homeless adults are helpless, hopeless, and unable to play an active role in society.  With that mindset, we may succeed in convincing government officials to increase housing opportunities or shelter capacity, but we will never succeed in achieving real recovery, either in the individual or in the community.  

It is convenient to place the blame — what people outside of social services see as laziness or a sense of entitlement — on the people experiencing homelessness themselves. If we as providers can look inward at the policies we instill, the culture we foster, and the subconscious stereotypes that we hold ourselves, we have a good chance of finally making a dent in poverty alleviation in the nation’s capital. 

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