Take Five! Q & A with Dennis Culhane

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Expert Q & A | October 2, 2006

Dennis Culhane
Professor, University of Pennsylvania

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
I think the greatest amount of innovation is occurring (and needed) in matching relocation and housing assistance programs to families and individuals on the basis of their needs and that maximizes their outcomes. Most research demonstrations have focused on individuals with severe mental illness, and we now know what works for that population. We know less about relocation and housing assistance programs (duration, intensity) needed for families, individuals with substance abuse issues, people transitioning from various institutions, and people who are jobless.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
For the homeless system itself, the focus should be on housing stabilization and relocation strategies into permanent housing. As nice as they can be on occasion, I’ve never seen a shelter I’d want to live in for very long. I value my independence too much. And I’ve seen plenty of shelters where I would stay only if my life depended on it.

For housing, disability and public assistance policy (and society writ large), the focus should be on prevention and sound public policies that are, in the end, preventative, including adequate income supports, housing subsidy opportunities, accessible services, employment opportunities, etc.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
I started in this field working at a shelter and soup kitchen run by the Franciscans in Philadelphia as a summer intern during college. I lived with a community of people committed to social justice and who campaigned for social policies that addressed human needs.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I’m always inspired by the memories of my experience as an organizer among homeless people in Boston, and in several other cities in the late 1980s. The process involved spending many hours with people and learning how they framed their experiences, their grievances, and their aspirations, in contrast to the views of the media, researchers, or service professionals. They were decidedly (and legitimately) ungrateful for the crumbs of society that were the shelters and soup kitchens that we gave them. In fact, ironically, it was in those very systems of aid that they tended to feel the most degraded and where they experienced the daily rituals of their oppression. This was an eye-opening perspective for someone from a do-gooder background like my own.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Because I believe we are a creative and compassionate people, and that we can create basic forms of housing assistance that meet a more minimally acceptable standard than shelter or drop-in centers. They may or may not cost us more than we spend as a society today. But if we prove that it can be done, and that it can be done efficiently and within a reasonable cost to society, I believe we can find the political will to make it happen. Change seems to take much, much longer than I’m comfortable with, but I believe it can happen, as I do believe we are making progress on a number of fronts.

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