No easy solutions to homelessness, advocates' statistics indicate

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 2 Feb 1999 13:53:55 -0800 (PST)


Some recent statistics from mainstream advocacy groups appear below.
The systemic causes of homelessness are skimmed over at best.
Social injustice, such as street sweeps, get no direct mention.
_We_ need to sound the alert and take action on those factors!

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http://www.toledoblade.com/editorial/news/9a29look.htm
FWD  Toledo [Ohio] Blade - January 29, 1999

     "NO EASY" WAY TO END DESPAIR FOR HOMELESS

     By Nara Schoenberg
     Blade Staff Wrirer

Katrina Furr-Hoffman was homeless for five years, and she has the
frostbite to prove it: large, peach-colored patches of skin on her feet
that burn when she's hot or cold.

The former Rogers High School cheerleader hated life on the streets,
and yet she ran through three homeless shelters, three apartments,
and numerous well-meaning social service workers before she found
the residential program that allowed her to overcome crack addiction
and begin a new life.

``I just didn't know how to stop,'' says Ms. Furr-Hoffman, 26. ``I
didn't know how to put the crack cocaine down, and once I put the
crack cocaine down, what was I going to do with my life? I didn't
have an education. I wasn't employable.''

In the aftermath of the holiday season, when concern for the
homeless reaches an annual high, Ms. Furr-Hoffman's story is one
of many reminders that getting people off the streets permanently
often takes more than a room, a meal, or even a job.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, hundreds of free turkey
dinners were served in the Toledo area. Volunteers spooned out
mashed potatoes, handed out shampoo, and distributed blankets and
clothing. Students collected new socks, and even camped out in a
cardboard box to better understand the plight of the nation's poorest
citizens.

But it's the end of January now, and the shelters are still full.

Experts say homelessness is a prickly problem, and point to
deep-rooted causes such as the high cost of housing in a boom
economy, the difficulty of treating long-term substance abuse, and the
challenges of dealing with treatment-resistant mental illness.

``When you're dealing with someone who's homeless, there are no
easy solutions,'' says Maryam Berta, a social worker for a program
for the homeless at the Toledo Veterans Administration Outpatient
Clinic.

``It would be nice if you could wave a magic wand and the problem
would disappear,'' but homelessness doesn't work that way, she
says.

The homeless are a diverse group, said Nan Roman, vice president of
the National Alliance to End Homelessness in Washington. About 30
per cent are members of homeless families, and their problems tend to
be basically economic. Often, Ms. Roman says, they get in and out of
the system fairly quickly and are never heard from again.

About a third of homeless people have long-term mental illnesses,
Ms. Roman says. They often need more extensive services, from
outreach workers who develop relationships with them and try to
persuade them to use shelters, to caseworkers who help them adjust
to the responsibilities of living in an apartment and paying their bills.

About 30 or 40 per cent of the homeless have substance abuse
problems, Ms. Roman says, and like people with severe mental
illnesses they often need extensive services to make a successful
transition to permanent housing.

The three categories overlap, and not all cases fit a clear-cut pattern.
But to Ms. Roman, and other national advocates, there is at least one
common thread.

``Fundamentally, people are homeless because they can't afford
housing,'' she says.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington,
the minimum wage has 15 per cent less purchasing power than it did
in the 1970s, and a minimum-wage worker has to work 83 hours a
week to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Ms. Furr-Hoffman traces her descent into homelessness back to her
senior year at Rogers High School, where she was a cheerleader and
honor student who sang the national anthem at school basketball
games.

Outwardly, everything was going well, but, for reasons she declines
to discuss, she grew depressed and dropped out of school. She
pinned her hopes for emotional fulfillment on a boyfriend, but when
he left her, she felt worse than before. In a three-month period when
she was 18, she went from casual alcohol use to marijuana to
painkillers and crack cocaine.

Her grandmother took her to Rescue Mental Health Services, but
medication for depression didn't help much. By age 20, she was
homeless.

She had four children in rapid succession, hoping each time that a
baby would make the father stick around. It didn't work. And
because of her drug use, she eventually lost custody of all four
children.

Within three years, she was working as a prostitute, trying to support
what, at its peak, was a $250-a-day crack habit. As soon as the sun
went down, she'd be out on the streets. Some nights, it was so cold
the johns would warn her to get inside.

``Don't you know there's a winter weather advisory?'' they would
say.

She was miserable, she says, but she was reluctant to respond to
offers of help. One of the problems was denial. She had big plans in
high school - she wanted to work in law enforcement - and she was
afraid that admitting her drug problem would destroy her future.

Ms. Furr-Hoffman gives a one-word answer when she's asked what
saved her from homelessness. ``Aurora,'' she says. Aurora House is
a residential program for homeless women and their children.
``That's all it was.''

She was inspired to see other women who had stopped taking drugs,
she says. She got a good feeling from the house, a cozy red brick
Victorian in the North End. She felt comfortable and at home with
Aurora's approach, which combines seemingly endless reserves of
love and support with a rigorous schedule of tutoring, support
groups, child-care training, curfews, education, and chores.

``I trust these people,'' Ms. Furr-Hoffman says. ``I trust what
they're telling me is right. They've done it so long, for so many other
people, and if it worked for them, it can work for me.''

Ms. Furr-Hoffman, who has been sober and working hard at Aurora
for eight months, is one of the success stories of homelessness, but
the story comes with some cautionary notes. Among them: some
years, Aurora has had a drop-out rate of 50 per cent.

At the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program's six-month
schedule for substance abusers, only two of five participants
successfully complete the program, and of those who do, half
experience a relapse, with sometimes catastrophic health
consequences.

``We have had people who [relapse and] die,'' says Mrs. Berta, the
social worker.

And even when homeless people do make it into permanent housing,
they can face years of hardship.

``Success for our women is living in poverty,'' says Kyle Grefe,
executive director of Aurora House. ``It will take years for them to
move out of poverty. But for them to stay sober, and pay bills, and
work, and keep their family together for two years or three years -
that's success. That's phenomenal success for them.''

Not all homeless people are ready or willing to be helped by such
programs. At St. Paul's Community Center in Toledo, which serves
many of the mentally ill homeless people other shelters can't handle,
executive director Ruth Arden speaks of long-term successes, as well
as ongoing challenges.

``We have some people that, no matter how we try, they won't see
the doctor,'' she says. ``They are just so fearful and so paranoid, that
the best we can do for them is to be here, to give them food, to make
sure they're not going to freeze to death at night.''

Finally, ending homelessness costs money. Programs such as Aurora
House, which provide comprehensive services as well as housing,
typically cost about $10,000 to $20,000 a year, said to Julie Sandorf
of the Corporation for Supportive Housing in New York. Still, that's
a relatively small cost compared with prison - up to $70,000 a year -
or the $250 to $1,000 a day it costs to keep someone in the hospital,
she says.

And it's hard to put a price tag on success stories such as Ms.
Furr-Hoffman or Perry Campbell, 50, of Toledo, who overcame six
months of homelessness and years of cocaine addiction with the help
of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program at the Toledo VA
Outpatient Clinic.

Mr. Campbell lost 50 pounds and lived in his car in the chaotic
months before he sought help. He lost the high-paying factory job he
had held for 21 years.

But today, after completing a six-month residential program for drug
abusers, and two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, he has a job at
the same VA clinic where he initially sought help. He is working as a
file clerk, living in his own one-bedroom apartment, driving his own
car, and planning to continue his education at the University of
Toledo.

``When I was using, my dreams and everything stopped,'' he says.
``I stopped growing, I had no ambition. But now I'm growing
again.''

At Aurora House, Ms. Furr-Hoffman has completed the first phase of
the program and is moving on to less supervised housing. She's
working on her GED, attending classes and support groups, caring
for her 5-month-old twins, Dayon and Daniel, and dreaming of a
future that includes college and work at a social service agency such
as Aurora.

Sometimes she sounds sad when she talks about lost years and lost
opportunities, but then she'll put her hand to her heart, overwhelmed
by the thought of nine months of sobriety.

Gesturing toward fellow residents who play with their children in the
next room, she drops her voice and her usual bright smile. ``One day
off the streets is a miracle for some of these ladies. For me.''

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