News and Tribune

February 27, 2013

ANDERSON: Debunking the myths: Homelessness in our area

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 previous columns at newsandtribune.com

 

After 30 years in the field, I find it amazing that some of the myths around homelessness and poverty still exist and on much the same level as when we began in this work. 

My cousin Jim used to say, “Life is a minute movie.” Sometimes it feels that way because you tell the story and then you tell it again and then you tell it again and someone says, “If Haven House didn’t exist, would we still have homeless?” 

Homelessness didn’t happen because we built a shelter; it did happen because we as a community have a volume of poverty that has exceeded our capacity to house the people in our community. Special-needs housing is strongly needed, as is affordable, permanent housing for the general population. 

What I want to do in this column is dispel some of the myths around the people living in poverty. Things I hear often when making presentations are:

 

We don’t really have that much homelessness, do we? 

Yes, we do. An average for any population nationally is 1 percent of your community, and last year we served an unduplicated 1,549 people.

That means that roughly 2 percent of our population experiences homelessness.

 

They aren’t local people; they are from Louisville or all over the country.

Wrong. Of those we served, 728, or 47 percent, were from Clark County including 579 from  Jeffersonville/Clarksville, 81 from Charlestown, 48 from  Sellersburg,  and 20 from Henryville.

Floyd County represented the next largest group of people with 26 percent, or 403 people. The bulk of those folks were from New Albany proper, with 43 people coming from the county region.

Scott County is represented by a total of 59 people or 3.8 percent of our total population; Harrison County is represented by a total of 4 percent or 62 people; Washington County is represented by a total of 3 percent or 46 people; Jefferson County, Ky., is represented  by 202 people. 

The remaining 49 people were from “everywhere else.” So the answer is no.

 

They are all mentally ill or drug addicted.

No, they aren’t. Of the 1,549 served last year, 480 were children, none of whom fit the labels above. It is amazing, but 239 of those children were under the age of 5.

Those with alcohol/drugs as a declared issue or one we identified totaled 356; many of those had received treatment or were in the process before or after their entry into the shelter. 

Physical health issues of a catastrophic nature numbered 473. By catastrophic, I mean severe physical health problems like untreated diabetes (one man lost five toes, another woman lost a leg). We buried nearly 10  people last year due to cancer, heart failure, kidney failure; only one of those was mentally ill, and only one took too much medication. 

The physical health issues far outweigh the mental health issues. That is not to say there is no need for mental health services. Those who are not diagnosed with a mental illness or an addictions issue are the ones we identify easily, and those who are experiencing episodic depression due to their current living condition more than warrants mental health services.

The chronically mentally ill represent a relatively small percentage of those we served, totaling 129, but they required intensive work and caused much consternation for those in the shelter — both residents and staff.

Of the numbers listed above, many cross lines or would be considered dual diagnosed. More than 68 percent of those we served would be considered people who have experienced poverty through job loss, unemployment, domestic violence, natural disaster, fire or death of a family member. 

 

If they would just work or get a job then they could do it themselves.

Wrong. Many are employed (about 53 percent) but work part-time or day labor with no hope of earning more without further training or assistance. Another 16 percent receive Social Security disability or Supplemental Security Income ($794 per month). 

With an average rent of $559 per month not including utilities in the area, it is little wonder we have homelessness. A lack of desire to work is there, but only for a little while. People work hard for the most part and the “Peter principal” does apply to our population as well as to the general population (80 percent of the people do 100 percent of the work). 

In 30 years of social work, I have never had anyone ask me to “get me on welfare or do it for me.” The first words I hear are, “Miss Barbara, I need a job and I need a home,” in that order. The myth about lazy homeless people is as exaggerated as the “welfare queen” of the 1980s and 90s.

 

We can’t afford all these social services; we’ll only have to pay more taxes.

Wrong. We don’t have enough services. We need to look at how we prioritize in this country and the emphasis we put on our poorest citizens. We can judge by what we have been given. 

Subsidies that are below 1983 levels with people who number almost 80 million more in population somehow just doesn’t make sense to me. A minimum wage as opposed to a living wage. Many of us find it hard to make it on a middle or median income, yet the poor we expect to survive on $7.25 per hour. Out of that, they have to pay enormous amounts for insurance. Sometimes if they are blessed they still are eligible for Medicaid, but that is rare. 

No assistance in training programs, no childcare subsidies for the majority of working mothers, no assistance for those making enough money to barely be above the poverty level. But we need a strong work force?

The fact is we need services, we need to help people realize their full potential, we need to deal with the real issues and stop playing games politically with the lives of the poor. The gamesmanship politically is appalling. 

We fight to protect the interests of the wealthy but will throw programs serving the poor under the bus. What are we thinking? The increase in burglaries, drug sales and shootings tell me there are people feeling desperate and trapped, for whatever reason. We as a country and a community have to do better, we can do better and we must do better.

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