From the Director: Prevention vs. Response

BY: JOSH SPRING, GCCH Executive Director

In 1982 in the whole country in the whole year it was estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 people experienced homelessness.  Relative to national economics, the Reagan Administration told us that if we put our dollars into the top; big business, the dollars would “trickle down.”  The people at the top of the economic pyramid would purchase big houses built by people who buy nice cars, built by people who eat at the local hamburger joint serviced by people like the rest of us; the money would work its way down.  The problem is that the plan was never meant to truly benefit everyone and because of greed, the money did not work its way down.  By 1986, following the Reagan Administration’s cuts to housing and basic services to put the dollars into big business and the military as a part of Reagan’s “supply-side theory,” “trickle-down economics” or “Reaganomics” that 250,000 to 500,000 in 1982, to an estimated three million people who experienced homelessness in 1986.  It is in this era that we created modern-day homelessness.

In 1989 a “Housing NOW” March on Washington was planned to take on this new phenomenon of massive homelessness.   They knew that the primary cause of homelessness was a lack of affordable housing, because so many units of affordable housing had been lost due to enormous financial cuts and gentrification.  In 1989 the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, working with its Members and Partners, sent 500 people to the “Housing Now” March.  500 people is a big number of people to travel from Cincinnati to Washington D.C. and certainly took a big effort to organize.

Consider today, do we still see homelessness as a phenomenon that must be ended quickly?  If we don’t, we must again.  We have got to change the conversation.  We cannot talk about homeless shelters as absolutes or as the primary response to a housing crisis.  We put far too much burden on the shoulders of our wonderful shelters.  When an individual or a family is facing losing their home the first response should not have to be shelter, we should have a system that responds to that issue and prevents the need to go to shelter.   We must also back our perspective up even further; we must ask the questions of what could have happened so that the individual or family would have never needed assistance to prevent the need for shelter.  What could have prevented them from facing the potential loss of their home?  The primary answer comes in three parts:  affordable housing, living wage employment and access to good healthcare.  The lack of each of these is the three primary causes of homelessness in this country and the delivery of these three needs is the primary solution to homelessness.

We must shift our thinking, we cannot only talk about what to do when an individual or family experiences homelessness as if that is their chosen path or somehow their fate.  To do so is not only short-sighted and undermines the strength of the individual and the family, but it also over-burdens our shelters.  To do so is like saying the only groups responsible for doing something about homelessness are the shelters and the rest of us are off the hook.  The work that our shelters in Hamilton County are currently doing is amazing.  With not nearly enough resources and a large demand, they are sustaining the lives of individuals and families in great need, working diligently to assist them in getting to a preferred life.  Our shelters are performing very well and acting as models to shelters in other places, but homelessness must be taken on by all of us.   We must work for the next step; when shelter is the response after prevention has been fully accessible in the way of affordable housing a preventative assistance.  Homelessness must be prevented and no longer assumed.