One organization I have volunteered for a little is Shared Housing Center in Deep Ellum. They help the homeless and near homeless to become self-sufficient by offering temporary housing, facilitating home-sharing situations (matching up roommates), and providing services such as tutoring for children and counseling for adults.
Kids getting food at the “School Is Cool” event
I have heard a lot of negative thoughts about homeless people, even from people I consider compassionate and well informed, so I thought I should do some research on the homeless population, some of the misconceptions surrounding them, and what we can do to help.
About 75% of homeless people in Western countries are male, and a majority have completed high school, according to the book Social inequality by Charles Hurst. Nonwhites are overrepresented. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 38% of the homeless population is dependent on alcohol and 26% abuse other drugs. Also, 16% of the homeless have mental illnesses, and 7% are veterans. Among homeless youth, the lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans community is overrepresented at 40% (estimates in the general population tend to be less than 10%), typically because their families rejected them.
Texas has the fourth highest homeless population among American states.
I decided to talk to the director of Shared Housing Center, Maria Machado, to get a more personal look at the homeless population and how it is being served in Dallas. She has 30 years of experience working for the government and nonprofits, most of which has been with Shared Housing Center.
Maria said the causes of homelessness include the economy, people thinking it won’t happen to them, not saving, drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, medical expenses, mental illness, disability, and even children selling their parents’ homes out from under them. It seems to me like most of these problems could happen to anyone, not just the lazy. I couldn’t easily find statistics on how many homeless people have college degrees or used to have careers, but Maria thinks it is more than people suspect. A lot of these people are just like us but had some bad luck and didn’t have a good support system.
I told Maria I had heard that some homeless people don’t like shelters because of all of the rules they impose on residents. Maria said she believes “the rules are important for the safety of all involved.” Some shelters address specific groups like families or homeless teens who wouldn’t feel safe in a shelter filled with all kinds of people. So while the rules may turn some away, they attract others. She said, “I have met many people who believe that to enter a shelter is to throw the towel in and surrender, breaking their independence and pride.” Not everyone wants stay on the streets so they can continue to do drugs; with some, it’s just about dignity.
Another reason someone might not want to go to a shelter is that their needs aren’t met there, especially older adults.
One of the participants in Shared Housing Center’s
roommate program. She was a stay at home mom
who ended up alone in retirement.
Some people think that the homeless prefer to live on the streets because they can make a lot of money panhandling and don’t want the responsibilities of a home and a job. Maria said, “To date, I have only met two people who prefer to be homeless, but I think it has to do with mental health issues. Both are older women who appear to struggle with reality.” She also pointed out that cities are cracking down on panhandling, so that is becoming a less viable option.
I think learning what kinds of people are homeless and how they became homeless is a step toward improving the situation, especially on an individual level. Of course, it would be great if we could solve homelessness, but neither Maria nor I think it will never be completely eradicated.
What can be done? According to Maria, a lot of the mainstream resources, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are easily abused and need to be restructured. She said there need to be more sensitive laws that uphold human dignity, such as allowing students to enroll in school without a home address.
Raising the minimum wage would probably help, but people also need to take responsibility for themselves and pursue education and steady jobs, be responsible, and live within their means.
Maria’s advice for someone who is in imminent danger of becoming homeless is to have a plan with weekly and monthly goals. She said many people spend a lot of money to put their possessions in storage and then can never retrieve them. It’s better to have a friend or family member hold your necessities and sell or give away the rest.
What can we do as individuals? I asked Maria how one can decide which charity to support and determine whether an organization is legitimate. She said we can check the various charity rating organizations on the Internet and see a charity’s status with the IRS. Some homelessness nonprofits focus on immediate housing needs, while others are more concerned with breaking the cycle of homelessness. “Your decision to support should be made on an alignment of your own beliefs and the vision of the agency.”
I like Shared Housing Center because they handle both aspects of serving the homeless community. Maria told me that her organization’s main need right now is funding. The government is focusing more on permanent housing, but Shared Housing doesn’t want to change its strategy. It also needs volunteers to answer the office phone, enter data, etc. I have helped the group with organizing donations for an auction, selling raffle tickets at its wine event, and designing/editing newsletters.
Maria said most organizations welcome help year round. She advises exploring and finding the right fit for you.
Thanks so much to Maria Machado!