ADDRESSING HOMELESSNESS AT ITS ROOT CAUSE
By John Berry, St. Vincent de Paul of Georgia
At St. Vincent de Paul we have discovered a cure for homelessness…it’s a home.
I’m not trying to be glib here but it is a simple fact: we can prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.
People like “Charles” who is living on veteran’s disability benefits and drives for Uber to make ends meet. His car broke down and he is late with rent. Or “Sarah”, a housekeeper earning $10 an hour, who must spend $187 per month to pay off old hospital bills for her daughter with bone cancer. Charles and Sarah are considered “at risk” for homelessness because they are in the precarious financial situation of spending over 50% of their income on rent.
Policy makers and homeless advocates talk of a “continuum of care” for the homeless, where they are guided through a system of services ranging from emergency shelters to permanent housing. Homelessness prevention is the first stop along that continuum-and that is the work of St Vincent de Paul. If we are successful, the ride ends with us.
Charles and Sarah called us and our volunteer caseworkers visited them in their homes to help formulate plans that would provide them with temporary financial stability and allow them more time to address their financial problems. Those plans included some short -term rent assistance to keep them in their homes and prevent their eviction.
I wish I could tell you that Charles’ and Sarah’s stories were unique-that hard-working people don’t face eviction. But the fact is that over 17 million households in the United States pay over 50% of their income for housing. As housing costs continue to rise and wages stagnate that number continues to grow. Low income families and individuals who pay over half their income for housing are constantly making difficult tradeoffs- between rent and medicine, rent and food, rent and school supplies. They have little or no savings and are one illness, one job loss, or other disaster away from being homeless.
Our St Vincent de Paul caseworkers are often the first responders in these family housing crises. We provide a solution to homelessness by preventing it in the first place. Through rent and mortgage assistance we keep people in their homes and provide them the stability they need in order to deal with life’s other problems. This year alone, our donors provided over $3.2 million dollars in assistance to prevent the evictions of over 8,000 households. We believe prevention is the most cost-effective way to address the problem of homelessness, especially when compared with the high cost of sheltering the homeless, yet very little of our federal dollars are used in this way.
Our caseworkers are the unsung heroes in the fight against homelessness. These volunteers are often called when people have exhausted all their resources and eviction is imminent, time is of the essence, and emotions are running high. They respond compassionately in person and quickly assess the crisis, negotiate with landlords, and help people design short -term solutions to keep them in their home. They hand deliver rent checks and within hours another crisis is averted and another family will go to sleep knowing they will have a roof over their heads in the morning.