Let 2018 Be the Year the US Tackles its Homeless Crisis. (part 1)

The United States has a homeless crisis. In the year 2000 it was estimated that nearly 3.5 million people were homeless and each year the numbers increase. In order to address this problem the way that non-profit agencies are structured needs to change.  States need to decriminalize the state of being homeless as giving tickets and locking people up in jail does not fix the problem and rent control needs to be implemented.

After a long term relationship ended I was living in Denver and found myself in the situation of being homeless after not being able to pay the rent on my apartment.  It was the first time I had to use social services and it was an eye opener into the world of poverty and homelessness.  I never imagined I would end up in that situation having a master’s degree and a lot of work experience.  But there I was and in that experience I learned a lot.

The first service I signed up for was food stamps.  I was surprised that when one uses food stamps they are not allowed to purchase hot food.  Apparently our government does not feel that the poor should be allowed to eat a warm meal, however one can buy a gallon of icecream.  In Denver in order to be on food stamps one has to volunteer at a non-profit agency for a certain number of hours per month.  I had no problem with that as I already volunteered at a food bank.  However as I learned more about homelessness and the non-profit agencies serving them, the issue of volunteers has a downside which I will discuss later.

I volunteered at a food bank a couple of times a week.  I served as a social worker in an office where I would see people before they got their food with any other services they may be in need of.  I was in a unique position because I tried a lot of the services before recommending them to others.  That is when I learned the horrible truth about non-profits set up to serve the homeless.  I went to several agencies that promised help online or a pamphlet I had received.  I would make an appointment with the agency and show up to the appointment on time or walk in depending on the agency.  A volunteer, many of whom were food stamp recipients, would hand me a sheet of paper with the names, addresses and phone numbers of other agencies that would be able to help me.  I would take the piece of paper to other agencies where I was greeted by a volunteer, again a food stamp recipient and handed another sheet of paper with names, addresses and phone numbers of other agencies who would be able to help me.

The only help most of the agencies gave me was to hand me a sheet of paper referring me to another agency, but I never actually received any help.  I saw that most of these agencies were staffed with food stamp recipients and not social workers with master’s degrees on that subject.  Actually most of the agencies I went to did not do much.  I do know however from my master’s degree in management that non-profit agencies receive funding from the United States government and that funding is based upon the number of people served.  Each time I went in and was given a sheet of paper with names and numbers of other agencies, that particular agency could mark me down as a person being served.  The executives of these agencies were being paid salaries while the agencies themselves were staffed with food stamp recipients.  The executives were being paid for doing nothing, and our government was paying them to do nothing.  There is no incentive to get people off the street and back on their feet if employees of social service agencies are paid based on the number of people served.  If they actually were successful at their job, they would lose their job.  The homeless are sent around in circles from agency to agency and receive almost no help.  

In Seattle I volunteered at my synagogue’s homeless shelter for women.  I would drive a van downtown to pick them up at a shelter there to bring them back to the synagogue where they would spend the night.  When I would enter the shelter downtown often the staff would be screaming at the top of their lungs at the homeless women.  One time the police were there for some reason and one of them looked at me and said, “Oh my God!”  The staff at places that serve the homeless need to be educated and trained and not to view their job as disciplinarians.  The homeless are people not animals and should be treated as such.  If the police are appalled you know it is bad.

If we restructure the way non-profits are funded there may be more incentive for these non-profits to serve the poor and homeless and help them get back on their feet and into housing.  The people who serve the homeless need to be qualified social workers and not food stamp recipients who have no interest in helping the clients at a non-profit.  Until this happens the number of homeless in cities all across the United States will continue to grow.  We need to hold the agencies helping the homeless accountable for the services they are providing and to make sure their clients are not just given a piece of paper referring them to another agency, but that their agency actually does provide the help and services they advertise themselves as providing.

We as citizens, both wealthy and poor, need to demand from our government that the structure of non-profit organizations be changed.  The wealthy do not want to see the homeless living on their streets and the homeless want homes, not pieces of paper referring them to another agency.  Let 2018 be the year that the United States tackles its homeless crisis and becomes a model for other countries.



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I am a freelance writer and artist living in southern California.

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