Brace yourself. Your mailbox will soon be full of flyers and incentives for various gym memberships and get-fit plans. After all, this is finally the year you are making a “firm decision” to lose weight and get in shape. That’s all a New Year’s Resolution is by definition — a firm decision. There’s a problem with resolutions, though — they don’t really do anything about the underlying issues that keep us from reverting back to unhealthy ways prompted with the simple aroma of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.
By and large, those struggling with some form of addiction think all they need to do (at least at first) is to make a resolution; a firm foot in the sand that says, “No more!” Just yesterday I was having this conversation with our Men’s Shelter Manager, Kirk, who used to be homeless himself. We talked about the need out there and the attempts to remedy one’s poverty. “Housing First” is a great example of a solution to homelessness that does not take into account the underlying issues why we do what we do as human beings.
At a conference in 2014, Ralph DaCosta Nunez, the President and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, acknowledged that while Deputy Director for the Mayor in New York City, the number of homeless families went from 800 in the early 80s to 5,000 homeless families 30 years later. “[We] worked with their re-housing model, but when that number jumped to 5,000, [we] realized the problem wasn’t going to go away,” he said. Nor was it going to “level off.”
Why not? Because a house does not necessarily address the underlying issues. Can four walls and a roof suddenly curb a heroin addiction? Can an address alone improve an empty resumé and lack of job experience and education?
Nunez encouraged his conference audience to ask themselves: Are people without homes homeless? Are people without homes and with mental illness homeless? Are people without homes and victims of domestic violence homeless? Are people without homes and without educations homeless? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then the answer, Nunez points out, can’t be just homes.”
In October 2016, Visalia Rescue Mission launched a new campaign: Help That Helps. After 35 years of serving the homeless community in Visalia, we also realized the problems we were attempting to alleviate were only getting worse. (If you haven’t seen it yet, stop now and visit helpthathelps.org). Across the country, it has become clear the underlying issue causing homelessness is not the fact that an individual is without a home.
In a 2016 survey of more than 15,000 homeless individuals, 37 percent (5,905) have never been homeless before, and 24 percent (2,234) had been homeless three or more times before. According to the 2016 State of Homelessness in America report, homelessness is up 1.6 percent in California. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if the new state bill signed in September — making California a Housing First state — will have an impact. It hasn’t seemed to in New York, after billions in funding, which has seen homelessness increase more than 9 percent.
In a culture where “to each his own” is king and “mind your own business” is queen, it’s more important than ever to serve the “least of these” around us within a healthy context — to learn their stories and sincerely encourage them into the help they really need, which is not always the help they want. Now more than ever in Visalia, we all need to make a resolution — a firm decision — to give help that helps.