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Steve Berg: What ending homelessness looks like
September 20, 2010
*He’s not going to be homeless even though he came back from overseas and couldn’t talk to anybody. Even though his girlfriend, his boss, his friends and parents all made him so furious he couldn’t be around them. He’s not going to be homeless because the last time the doorbell rang, he let in the Veterans Affairs officer – a man who had rung twice before. Before he was ready. He’s not going to be homeless because the VA officer showed him how the Department of Veterans Affairs could help him – with job programs, benefits, landlord assistance, even a rent voucher if he can’t get work right away. He’s not going to be homeless. He’s going to explore his options with the VA. Before he left, the VA officer showed him a newspaper clip entitled, The Last Homeless Person in America. He told him that not so long ago, tens of thousands of veterans would return from abroad only to live on the streets. “But no more,” he said. “’I will never leave a fallen comrade’ means that if it means anything.”
*He’s not going to be homeless, even though he’s coming out of lockup and none of his family will take him back; even though he’s got a record now. He’s not going to be homeless even though he’s made some serious mistakes, even though he’s starting over with nothing. He’s not going to be homeless because they have a place for him to live. It’s a group home – but it’s that or adult prison and when he gets there it’s all about getting work and getting out and into his own place. The first day on the job they’re laughing at closing time. Laughing at the rookie cleaning the bathrooms and he laughts with them. There’s a newspaper on the floor, a story about The Last Homeless Person in America. He sweeps it up and knows that’s never going to be him.
*She’s not going to be homeless, even though she stopped taking her meds, even though she started drinking more again, even though she’s back on the precipitous edge. She’s not going to be homeless because when the rent was late, her landlord called Mental Health and a whole crew of people turned out. She’s not going to be homeless because they paid the rent and they listened. They listened to her talk about how scared she was – scared of being alone, of having no place to live, of falling back to where she used to be. They listened, promised to help her no matter what, and told her they didn’t let people become homeless anymore. “Look, even this guy isn’t homeless any more,” they said, holding up a paper:
The Last Homeless Person in America The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced today that the last homeless person in the country has been successfully housed – bringing an end to homelessness in America. The formerly homeless person now lives in a modest apartment with access to supportive services and medical treatment. This achievement, according to the HUD Secretary, was attained by making permanent housing a central focus of HUD programs and by adopting rapid re-housing and homelessness prevention strategies on a nationwide scale.
*****This is a work of speculative fiction – for now. Ending homelessness in America will require us quickly and comprehensively to address the combination of vulnerability and crisis that leaves people homeless today. It will require us to elevate prevention and re-housing tools to the same national scale as our shelter systems. It will require that we invest the resources and passion necessary to confront and untangle – five thousand times a day – the personal, emotional, and physical afflictions of people who today experience homelessness.