I have a few friends who work in organizations focused on job and employment training. Because I work in a housing agency, we often have chicken-or-egg-type debates when we talk about the route to reducing poverty – a home or a job? Which needs to come first to end the cycle of poverty?
It is hard to pay for security deposits, rent, furniture, and home repairs if someone has no income. Still, it is an incredible challenge to hold down a job without a place to shower, prepare food, change clothes and rest up each day. While I still fall on the housing side of the discussion, I realize that really, you can’t have one without the other. It is abundantly clear that the need for income and housing are tied together, so how should we approach these needs?
In a 2010 article on homelessness in London, The Economist made the radical claim that “The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless might be to give it to them.” The article profiles a charity called Broadway that performed a radical housing experiment with a cohort of chronically homeless individuals and managed to move 84 percent of the group off the streets. The agency did not provide job training services or housing. Instead, it asked the individuals what they needed to improve their lives. The answers varied greatly, from shoes to television sets, but the results did not – eleven of those 13 people are now in stable housing.
What can our cities learn from a small-scale British experiment? U.K. housing policies are different from those in the United States, and when there are thousands of people experiencing homelessness, eleven people is not a grand accomplishment. But the question at the root of the experiment – “What do you need?” – is applicable to homelessness everywhere.
Too often, our policies make it impossible for someone to leave the streets or obtain employment. A formally homeless woman once explained the connection to me when she said that between appointments, waiting lists, and paperwork, “Being homeless is a full time job.” Many policies are aimed at punishing or suppressing the poor, but do nothing to help reduce the rates of people experiencing homelessness. Even well- meaning policies are usually created in meeting rooms, not shelters. In Baltimore, Chicago, and Denver, agencies have begun connecting homelessness experts – those who have actually experienced homelessness – to politicians and legislators. This testimony can provide valuable insight to policymakers and shape new legislation in ways that can actually work.
When Broadway asked people what they needed to leave homelessness, they got the right answers. If this could happen in the legal, political, and economic spheres, it would take a lot of guesswork out of policymaking. Perhaps we are wrong to wonder if the job or the apartment needs to come first – maybe there is another strategy entirely. We cannot know until we ask.