Homelessness is a Failure of Community

It arose suddenly as a persistent mass phenomenon in American society in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. Until that time, any social scientific discussion of homelessness considered it the result of disastrous upheavals such as famine, earthquake, plague, and war.

On one level, homelessness happens to individuals and families and so must be understood and treated in reference to the unique circumstances that a specific homeless person has suffered and has created for him or her self.

On a level much more vast, homelessness cannot be understood without reference to the many mutually inter-related socio-economic forces which in combination produce a higher probability and incidence of homelessness in a society.

Racial, income and wealth inequality; tax policy, employment opportunities, educational policy, provision of social safety nets, public spending on domestic programs, planning for human-scale economies and communities, and many other factors construct the environment in which a person strives to become and remain secure in their housing.

So, addressing and eradicating homelessness is necessarily the work of acknowledging the unique circumstances of each homeless person, as well as the systemic lack of right relations among people.

To use a medical metaphor, homelessness can only be viewed as personal “deviance” or “pathology,” if the “epidemic” nature of this problem is ignored.

The Need in Delaware

Delaware’s current system to assist its homeless citizens includes 1,517 beds in various emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, and permanent supportive housing programs. There are also approximately 120 motel vouchers used each night.

While the need for homeless services has increased, the number of beds available has not increased at the same rate. This means that unless people move to the street, they must find other housing options – like living with family or friends, seeking assistance to pay for motel stays, and other makeshift remedies.

Some of the homeless population experience a single episode of homelessness. Others experience homelessness multiple times or even continuously during the course of a few years. It is estimated that this latter group uses 60% of all the resources expended on the homeless population. Over the last few years, the following percentage of Delaware’s homeless population was in this second category:







Planning to End Homelessness

In 2007, the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness was approved by Governor Ruth Ann Minner. Focusing on the critical needs of this part of the homeless population, it recommends the addition of 2,003 beds to Delaware’s homeless assistance services, toward the goal of breaking the cycle of homelessness.

The 2,003 beds needed in the State can be broken down as follows:

  • 648 new supportive housing units with essential services for those with disabilities
  • 1,000 new rental subsidies to move people into private market units
  • 25 beds tied to a statewide crisis intake system
  • 330 beds already in existence but in jeopardy due to an inability to meet federal dollar match requirement.

An important part of the goal of the Ten-Year Plan is to move the state toward an approach that is both more effective and more cost-efficient. Dr. Dennis Culhane of the School of Social Work, University of Pennsylvania, is one of many proponents of a more prevention-oriented approach to reducing homelessness. Early intervention to prevent homelessness could reduce it by as much as 50%. In addition, it could cost as little as $800 per household, as opposed to average costs for emergency or supportive housing of $13,000 to $18,000.

Some of the themes raised in discussions of homelessness share common threads with the articulation of housing needs for people with disabilities. There, advocates and planners are seeking better planned, more responsive, less costly, less restrictive, client-centered, non-institutional housing arrangements and forms of meeting needs.

The recent implementation of a statewide rental assistance program (SRAP) is one of several steps being taken in Delaware to address chronic homelessness and move toward more community-based treatment of homelessness in general.

Others anticipated changes include:

  • centralized intake
  • increased permanent supportive housing opportunities
  • less reliance on shelters and transitional housing as the major vehicle for restabilizing
  • use of community-based housing followed by continuous case management
  • an pronounced emphasis on homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing

This change in strategy will require an even wider understanding and affirmation of homelessness as a community problem which can best be absorbed by, and ended in, the community.