Take action on homelessness

I’d like to send a belated thank you to the city commissioners for their approval of the resolution to build a low-kill animal shelter for Marshall. It will make a difference to many people in the city and beyond. It will take time, but it won’t be hard to solve a big chunk of the unwanted pet problem here, as long as it is set up properly. We know how to do this. One thing that we know a lot less about is how to solve the homeless people problem. If it were just a matter of building shelters, it would have been solved long ago.

It’s no secret that many of the homeless in this country have mental health issues. Their numbers exploded after the mass deinstitutionalization that began in the 1960s. Many others have addictions or other substance abuse problems that keep them out of shelters. Others may have housing available with friends or family which they decline for various reasons. Still others prefer not to live under the rigid rules that apply in many homeless shelters.

The national trend, in fact, is not to build more shelters, but to develop programs around the concept of “Housing First,” in which vouchers are used to put the homeless into existing housing, rather than segregating them from the rest of the community. They are not screened out for behavioral issues and there are no prerequisites (e.g., attendance at AA meetings), for continued tenancy beyond the rules that apply to all residents. The idea is that after they are settled in a normal living situation, they will be more prepared to deal with any underlying issues. There has been both trial and error with this nonjudgmental approach, and while it won’t work for everyone, it does seem promising.

There are some in Marshall who will continue to resent what they see as money spent on animals rather than on homeless people. Do they care enough about homelessness to do more than grumble? If so, I’d suggest taking a page from the animal shelter campaign playbook. The animal advocates didn’t just identify a problem and demand that the city solve it. They built an advocacy team, formed a charitable organization to raise funds to support their own activities, quantified the problem, researched solutions, paid professionals to price a number of alternatives, presented them to the city and took a number of other steps to gain (and re-gain) approval. I skip many steps and greatly simplify the process for brevity’s sake.

Deferring the proposed animal shelter will not get a homeless shelter built, and it might be true that a traditional shelter is not the best approach for Marshall. Complaining about it helps no one. If you believe that Marshall needs to do more to help the homeless, do your part to start the process. Organize!

— Linda Harber, Marshall