News and Tribune

February 20, 2013

ANDERSON: Bureaucracy and the poor: The devil is in the details

By BARBARA ANDERSON
Local columnist

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of guest columns from Barbara Anderson on poverty and homelessness in the area. Read her previous columns at newsandtribune.com

 

As a young social worker, when contemporary homelessness was just beginning to appear on the horizon as an issue, the Department of Housing and Urban Development defined homelessness as: “A person living on the streets, in a car or residing in a place not fit for human habitation.” 

There were actually other definitions at the time, including people at risk of being homeless or with an eviction notice. You could obtain a Section 8 Rental Assistance voucher on an emergency basis if you experienced fire or natural disasters. 

Those days are pretty much gone.

After 28 years of actively working with the poor and homeless, I can say that up until last year the only thing that had not changed while working was the HUD definition of homelessness. If you can’t solve a problem any other way, define it away, that was the theory. I was often told “Barb, be realistic, if we really counted the total population we could never afford to house them.” 

That makes sense to me if you don’t want to do anything about the situation.

We were told to “get creative,” “think outside the box” and deal with it “locally.” When you did try any of the above, it didn’t meet the definition or statutes got in the way. 

And then something happened, a process evolved called the Continuum of Care. It actually required that local providers be part of the process in developing plans that would help to end homelessness as we know it. Or at least that was the initial intent. When the resources were too small we narrowed the definition again. 

Words mean a lot. They sting, they enable, and they give praise. In the eyes of bureaucracy, they control and limit. At least in some respects. 

There are those who live in the bureaucracies of nonprofits and governmental organizations who are truly good people and they fight hard for what they believe is the right thing. John Dorgan is such a man and the head of the HUD field office in Indianapolis. Mark Johnston, the Secretary of HUD, is another. He actually came to Jeffersonville the year before last and visited for hours at the shelter and in the community. 

Both men are men of honor and integrity, as is Virginia Peck, who actually lives in Jeffersonville and retired from HUD. She now works for Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher and she believes we can build a better tomorrow. 

With people like this within the system, there is hope. But much needs to be fixed. Anna Oliva is the director for the SNAPS division of HUD. She has witnessed much and is determined to be part of the solution. HUD is only one organization though, for too many years the only one carrying the ball on homelessness.

Why, if homelessness is about poverty, isn’t the Department of Health and Human Services more directly involved? If working poor people are homeless, why aren’t homeless people a priority for public housing if they are working and living in the shelter (they are in Jeffersonville but not in every public housing organization)? If the mentally ill and addicted really do comprise 40 percent of the total population, why doesn’t their program requirements provide for enough programmatic dollars to assist the mentally ill and addicted. 

On Friday of last week, I was told of a woman living on the street in downtown Jeffersonville. Paul Stensrud from Exit O called to say he needed some help from us because she wasn’t being very receptive to assistance, and I went to see her. She was calmer with me, probably because I was a woman and she was too. 

She was mentally ill and from California and I don’t know how she got here. I offered her shelter, but she refused. I went back with food that the Center for Lay Ministries had gathered for me to give her. I also took a young woman from the shelter with me who had lived on the street until the white flag was put out. She was even more receptive. 

I asked her if she would come in again, but she said no. I then asked her if she would come in if the young woman came back later with other residents, and she said she would. They couldn’t find her later and it looked like it was going to storm. Her things were there. I called the police department and found out she had been arrested for trespassing. Paul went back to collect her things and keep them for her until she gets out of jail. She did not commit a crime — she is ill and homeless.

I know the complaints the police must have received, but I also know she has the right to be on public property. The answer is not in jailing people, that is a very costly solution. The answer is to provide services and to humanely deal with the issue. 

In our world locally, 25 percent are chronically mentally ill and 75 percent need counseling for trauma and stress. Of those served locally, 55 percent grew up in foster care or youth care (that is the national average as well) and still do not feel at home anywhere. 

Almost 85 percent of the women have been physically, sexually or verbally abused and about 40 percent of the men have acknowledged such abuse. The children will be either wonderful students or academically behind by an average of two years according to national statistics. 

We cannot build viable, strong communities until we build viable, strong people. We have a responsibility to help and to acknowledge the issue of homelessness and poverty. We cannot define it away and we will someday be judged by how we decided to deal with the issue.

— Barbara Anderson is executive director of Haven House Services Inc.