Take Five!  Q & A with Ben Israel


Expert Q & A | November 4, 2008

Ben Israel
Formerly Homeless Veteran
Now with Pathways to Housing DC

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
The economic condition in the U.S. has always been a factor for people who are homeless. God forbid Wall Street crashes like it recently did, because poverty and access to affordable housing is already a terrible problem for many people. Congress needs to adopt a serious response to homelessness and poverty, rather than spending their time talking about other priorities like dominating global financial markets. This country needs to make people a priority, and at the very least provide single room occupancy housing for all homeless people.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
Federal and local budgets should include money for more than ill-equipped shelters and untrained staff. Providing permanent, supportive housing would cut cost in the end because people who have stable shelter can get on with their lives while concentrating on achieving steady employment and healthcare and avoiding costly emergency services.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
Pathways to Housing helped me to become an outspoken advocate for homeless veterans by allowing me to speak on the issue at a national level. I’m an advocate because of my experience with being homeless in five or six major cities over a period of 20 years. This experience has given me real insight into the policy problems of our country. I see homelessness as a moral issue as well because I personally understand the demoralizing feelings it leaves people with, especially military veterans like me.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from the belief that homeless people cannot just lie down and give in. Even though some of us are burdened with problems, if we are able, we should try to continue to look for housing and employment. I believe that it’s important to stay busy and stay positive, despite your situation. In my case I moved around and worked at several different places. Due to the variety of experiences I encountered, I learned how to communicate better, even though I was homeless and often felt like I had no voice. I know this answer may sound vague to some, but this is how I kept going and didn’t give up, even after many years of homelessness. I know it’s even harder for people who have no real work history or for whatever reason cannot work. I could at least work while I was homeless, even if I couldn’t make enough money to afford housing. I think the adversity I faced during my military tenure taught me how to survive on the streets and not give up.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
I think ending homelessness can happen if leaders in Congress leave their offices and take a field trip right here in Washington, DC. Just two or three buildings can house a large percent of the homeless population in this city — not shelter buildings but buildings full of single room occupancy unites. Congress could then use what they saw as a model for other cities.

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