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For 20 years, Anthony Hopkins slept on the sidewalks of Washington, D.C., occasionally stopping by his mother’s for a shower or visiting a drop-in center for a bite to eat.
Hopkins lived day to day, struggling to manage his mental illness and substance use disorder. He assumed finding permanent housing was a fantasy.
An apartment seemed like a rare reward for the few homeless folks who managed to get sober, get a job, or fulfill other complicated requirements — and then were lucky enough to find vacancies in supportive housing sites.
So he didn’t worry about the future, only his present realities.
“The simple fact is: if you don’t have a place to live, you don’t worry about a job or setting goals or your responsibilities,” Hopkins told Global Citizen. “You worry about where you’re going to get your next meal and if you’re going to wake up the next morning.”
But in 2008, the director of the drop-in center asked Hopkins: “Are you tired of being homeless? Are you tired of living on the street?”
The man told Hopkins he could have a permanent apartment without jumping through the usual hoops if he attended an appointment with the organization Pathways to Housing the next morning. To Hopkins, it seemed too good to be true.
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By giving Hopkins a permanent place to live, Pathways to Housing enabled him to focus on improving other parts of his life.
That’s the basic idea behind the Housing First approach. It’s a strategy that has spread from Nyc to Scandinavia and from Australia to Argentina, since it was developed by psychologist Dr. Sam Tsemberis in 1992, the same year he founded Pathways to Housing in New York City.
While the approach may sound intuitive, homelessness is often perceived as a shameful personal failing or a natural consequence of severe mental illness, and that stigma has helped give rise to a series of complex requirements that homeless people are mandated to meet before being given housing.
The Housing First model bypasses such stigmas and tackles homelessness at its most basic level — a simple lack of a roof over one’s head.
As housing costs increase and incomes stagnate around the globe, homelessness is getting worse.
The number of homeless people in France increased by nearly 50% between 2001 and 2012 and in Germany, the total homeless population rose by 35% between 2012 and 2014.
In Australia, one in 20 are homeless.
The number of people who accessed homeless services increased by 14% between 2013 and 2016.
Homelessness is also on the rise throughout Brazil’s biggest cities.
Earlier this month, 20,000 homeless residents of Sao Paulo demonstrated to demand more affordable housing. According to the Sao Paulo government, the number of people sleeping on the streets nearly doubled between 2000 and 2015.
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In particular, people with severe mental illnesses — the population Tsemberis had in mind when he developed the “Housing First” approach — are at high risk of becoming chronically homeless. They often lack the capacity to comply with the various requirements of temporary shelters or treatment programs that could eventually lead to housing, Tsemberis said.
“What’s frustrating about homelessness is you can solve it right away. It’s not like you need to develop a cure,” Tsemberis told Global Citizen. “There is so much evidence showing how Housing First works, but it takes political will.”
Finland, Norway, and Denmark have all demonstrated their commitment to implementing the Housing First model because they take “the idea that housing is basic human right very seriously,” Tsemberis said.
Finland has nearly ended street homelessness by funding permanent housing programs. The Nordic nation has reduced the number of emergency shelter beds in the entire country to just 58.
In the US, three states — Virginia, Delaware, and Connecticut — along with 51 large communities, including Houston, Texas and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, have ended veteran homelessness altogether thanks to permanent housing programs for the chronically homeless. Across the nation, the population of homeless veterans decreased by almost half between 2010 and 2016 — though 40,000 homeless vets remain on the streets.
In September, French president Emmanuel Macron announced his commitment to funding 50,000 permanent apartments, which would immediately house chronically homeless people.
Since her election in 2015, the mayor of Madrid (Spain) announced the development of 135 new units (and Tsemberis tweeted that the Spanish capital is on pace to end street homelessness by 2020).
In comparison, about 60,000 homeless people still rely on the New York City municipal shelter system every night.
The United Nations considers housing a human right.
Homelessness is just the most visible manifestation of economic and social policies that exacerbate worldwide poverty and inequality — “the very tiny tip of a much larger iceberg” Tsemberis said.
Tsemberis said Global Citizens can start to address homelessness by recognizing the discomfort we feel when we encounter a homeless person. That discomfort is an indication that homelessness is unnatural and inhumane, he said.
“I do believe that all of us sacrifice part of our humanity by being able to walk past a homeless person,” Tsemberis said. “It goes against human instinct. You have to shove a piece of yourself down to walk by someone who is suffering in the street.”
“We owe it to them,” he continued. “And we owe it to ourselves to restore a sense of community and humanity.