Hope for the Homeless: Ending Homelessness Through Sustainable Living
Homelessness in America can be eliminated by creating micro-communities of localized housing, education, commerce, and growth in the form of self-sustaining communities that expand organically. This system will begin with providing homes for the homeless in re-purposed or renovated apartment units or other mass housing. The individuals and families that reside within these complexes will be required to maintain their units and contribute to community farming which will raise enough food for all the inhabitants, with the goal of eventually creating a surplus which can be sold with excess profits shared amongst the community. Free education will be provided, up to and including college level degrees, with a focus on community needs. Individuals who stay on may utilize community resources to create cottage industries incorporating community resources. In this way, the formerly homeless community can grow and expand until the entire homeless population has the hope of a viable future.
The Problem of Homelessness in America
According to The State of Homelessness in America 2014, “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), considers an individual homeless if he or she lives in an emergency shelter, transitional housing program, safe haven, or a place not meant for human habitation, such as a car, abandoned buildings, or on the street.” (9). “The Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts an annual one-day count of homeless people that encompasses shelters, as well as parks, underpasses, vacant lots and other locales. Its latest count, for a single night in January 2013, tallied 610,042 homeless people, including 130,515 children.” (Walker). However, estimates of homeless children may be grossly underestimated since practical homelessness also involves those families who are living in cheap motels or families that are “doubling up” with others, staying in rooms not intended for habitation, such as closets or kitchens (Walker). Of the entire homeless populace, 9.5% are veterans.
Current efforts to aid the homeless population consist largely of providing meals and temporary shelter -though there are many programs aimed at helping the homeless attain permanent housing, as well as income assistance. Homeless shelters provide temporary shelter from the elements, with length of stay and other limitations varying from facility to facility. Soup kitchens, food pantries, and food banks provide meals ranging from packaged lunches to bagged groceries, to full Thanksgiving dinners which vary in quality, quantity, and availability. These aids can be privately funded by donations, publicly funded by local or national government, or a combination of the two. The United States federal government provides billions of dollars in grants and other programs each year to assist with programs designed to aid the homeless.
Many people experience temporary homelessness at some point in their lives. In fact, in 2013 only 92,593 homeless people were considered “chronically homeless”, meaning that as individuals they are living with a disability and staying in shelters or on the streets for long periods of time or repeatedly (The State of Homelessness in America 2014, 11). There is a well-known saying: if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life. It is well understood that, in order to end homelessness completely, permanent solutions are needed to solve the problems that lead to and continue the cycles of chronic homelessness. Despite programs like HUD, Veterans’ Affairs (VA), and Homelessness Prevention, the Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), and many others, permanent solutions are difficult to come by. The problem with giving a homeless person a “fish” is that, without teaching them ways to overcome the barriers that brought them to the position of needing one in the first place, you are all but guaranteeing that necessity will force them to come back for another “fish” sooner or later. In the field of medicine, treating the symptoms of a disease can be beneficial in the short term, but without attacking the disease itself, the need to continue treating symptoms will never go away. Hunger and homelessness are “symptoms”. The “disease” is a lack of knowledge, experience, and/or opportunity to provide for oneself stable income with which one can afford the necessities of life. The solution to chronic homelessness is to teach the homeless how to provide for themselves, while treating the individual problems which prevent them from doing so.
A Lasting Solution to the Problem of Chronic Homelessness
Psychologist Abraham Maslow created a model of human behavior to show what motivates people. This model takes the form of a pyramid, at the bottom of which are the basic physical needs of food, shelter, sleep, etc. As these needs are met, an individual becomes free to move up the successive layers of the pyramid, to higher levels of being. After physical needs are met, a person can begin to seek fulfillment of safety needs, followed by social needs, esteem needs, and at the peak of the pyramid: self-actualization. Self-actualized people are those who are fulfilled and doing all that they are capable of. Maslow described self-actualization as follows:
It refers to the person’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions (Quoted in McCleod).
Most efforts to help the homeless focus on the lowest level of need -and with good cause: these needs can be met impersonally; they can be easily measured to have been fulfilled; and most importantly, they can be purchased at a cost. Meeting a person’s biological needs is certainly important, and should not be ignored. But once these needs are met, where is the help to move past the physical and begin addressing the other needs that all humans have? How can needs for stability, friendship, self-esteem, knowledge, and other areas of personal growth be met at a soup kitchen? In order for a homeless man’s life to be transformed and the cycle of his chronic homelessness be broken, he must be given the opportunity to grow beyond the struggle to meet his basic needs and be assisted with a journey towards fulfillment as a whole being. This includes the opportunity to develop safe and lasting relationships, to learn and pursue development in skill areas that are of interest to him, and to eventually achieve the means to help others who have been in his position. In short, there is a need to provide a new chapter in the life of a homeless person, one in which they are given the chance to grow into the person they were meant to be.
There is a way to meet a homeless person’s needs, not just for food and shelter, but for personal fulfillment. A micro community must be developed wherein the formerly homeless person can work to meet their own needs. Food will be grown in small community farms utilizing resource-maximizing methods including aquaponics, tended by the people will eventually share in the fruits of their labor -not just by eating them, but by sharing in the profits of their surplus. Education will be required for all community members, and provided for free, in areas which are best suited to the individuals’ inclinations, abilities, and aptitudes. Entrepreneurship will be a way of life as business mentorship allows each person the opportunity to own their own microbusiness, or assist with each other’s ventures -whether it is an online store, local gardening service, or product made from the communities shared resources. Finally, they can have what must have once seemed an impossibility: the chance to help build their own small home, or renovate a purchased home, which will be the end goal for every community member. Because this model can become self-sustaining, the help will continue, those previously helped need not return for a second handout, and the hope of lasting change will begin to become a reality.
The first step is a home. Initially, new residents will move into existing apartment structures that have been purchased through one of several government programs that allow for the re-purposing of existing structures to providing affordable housing or homeless shelters. Additional housing will be provided by renovating existing structures that are damaged and purchased inexpensively. Residents will be employed to do much of the repair work while learning under a licensed contractor. Though perhaps not fully realized until much later in their stay, the end goal for every person who enters the program is for them to own their own home, and to be able to provide for themselves in a sustainable and ongoing fashion. Thus, entirely new houses, built for and by the community, will be constructed on land specifically set aside for that purpose. Instead of merely living in a dwelling that was provided for her through charity, the resident will find herself with a new home that she helped design and build. The formerly homeless will have a place to call their own.
Simultaneously, healthful, nutritious, natural foods will be grown, prepared and shared with the community members. The value of nutrition will be taught and exemplified by the wholesome meals that the community will share. The ingredients for meals will be produced on site, to the greatest extent possible utilizing the latest advancement in agricultural methodology and sustainable practices, including aquaponics. Aquaponics is “the combined culture of fish and plants in recirculating systems” (Rakocy, Masser, Losordo 1). It is a combination of hydroponics (growing plants, without soil, in a liquid nutrient solution) and aquaculture (fish farming) which turns the wasteful elements of both into a mutually beneficial, highly efficient, cyclic growing system. Methods such as this will help to create nutrient dense, sustainable food sources for the community. By helping to provide for each other, knowing where their food comes from, and assisting in its production, a growing sense of ownership in the individual’s own health will develop. In addition to providing the daily sustenance of the community, the aquaponics systems, garden plots, animal pens, and greenhouses will prove themselves to be a valuable source of income as the surplus food is sold at local farmer’s markets and other venues. Onsite medical care and counseling services will be available to aid with any issues that may affect individual and group health.
In addition to the on-the-job training provided during the farming and construction processes that all community members will be expected to assist with, formal educational opportunities will be provided at no cost to the community. The goal of providing learning to the uneducated is synergistic to the goal ending homelessness, and in fact is very likely to be a necessary precursor. According to the Institute for Children and Poverty, job training is not enough to aid the homeless, since many of the assumed precursors to employment, such as a permanent address, reliable transportation, and previous work history, and minimum education requirements simply do not exist in the majority of the homeless population (3). Employment is therefor (when it can be obtained at all) often limited to low-skill, low-pay, short-term work which does little to move a homeless person towards a sustainable lifestyle. A better solution is to provide a well-rounded education which rectifies deficiencies, corrects learned behaviors, and prepares the student for the responsibilities that will arise with home ownership and employment. GED programs are a good start for adults, and remedial education for the families who have fallen behind on their studies due to the difficulties of homeless life. Additionally, higher education can be attained with programs that will lead towards certification, and even Associates and Bachelor’s degrees for those willing and able to put forth the required effort.
These various educational programs will be put to use in many ways relevant to earning income. With available counseling form the local Small Business Association (SBA), community members will have the opportunity to explore options which will allow them to work for themselves, as well as access to government programs that can help with initial startup costs. Everyone will be required to assist with food production: feeding chickens and gathering eggs, planting seeds and pulling weeds, milking cows and cleaning their stalls, etc. Their reward for this work will be multifaceted. Firstly they will receive the physical rewards of fresh locally produced food. Secondly, they will develop a valuable work ethic and a lasting pride in their self-reliance. Thirdly, the surplus and related products (such as cheese, butter, yarn, and honey) will be sold at a profit which the whole community will share in. Small business ideas and farm product innovations will be encouraged and rewarded with increased profit participation, for example if a resident develops a soap made from the milk and honey produced by the community’s resources, she will get the normal portion of profit share that all the others receive, along with an additional share from the sales of the specific product she innovated. With the addition of education and SBA counseling, residents will be required to develop appropriate job skills, and encouraged to put those skills to work through their own small business ventures, where their profits will be their own to keep.
The end result of the micro-community experience will be to assist in the transition from a chronically homeless lifestyle to that of a homeowner with the means for sustainable income. As in all other homeless shelters, the initial emphasis will be on providing food and housing for the homeless. However, it will differentiate itself in almost all other areas beyond those first similarities. Instead of handouts, the community members will work for their room and board. Instead of short term solutions, it will focus on the long view. Instead of treating symptoms, it will work on the whole person to help the individual self-actualize, self-sustain, and self-support. It is hoped that the overall experience will create within the community a spirit of gratitude and the desire to “pay it forward” to spread similar micro-communities far and wide until the condition of homelessness is nothing but a distant mark on the past’s horizon.
Institute for Children and Poverty, New York, NY. “Common Sense. Why Jobs And Training Alone Won’t End Welfare For Homeless Families. A Report Of Homes For The Homeless.” (1996): ERIC. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.
McLeod, S. A. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology. 17 Sept. 2007. Web. 19 Dec. 2014. <http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html>.
National Alliance to End Homelessness. “The State of Homelessness in America 2014” Report. National Alliance to End Homelessness. Endhomelessness.org, May 27, 2014. Web. 18 Dec. 2014. <http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/the-state-of-homelessness-2014>.
Rakocy, James E., Michael P. Masser, and Thomas M. Losordo. “Recirculating Aquaculture Tank Production Systems: Aquaponics—Integrating Fish and Plant Culture.” Southern Regional Aquaculture Center 454 (2006). Print.
Walker, Jade. “Number Of Homeless Children In America Surges To All-Time High: Report. “The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Dec. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/17/child-homelessless-us_n_6169994.html>.