Homelessness: Revisiting our Understanding, Creativity in our Solutions

Whether one is disheartened or encouraged by the recently defeated measure voted on in Denver, Colorado “Initiative 300,” which would have allowed for the camping of homeless persons in public spaces, free from harassment or forced relocation (in answer to the previously passed “Urban Camping Ban”), this has undeniably led to further highlight the problem of, and conversations around, urban homelessness.


In these conversations, it is apparent that there are broadly stated narratives and frameworks used in perceiving and understanding the issue of homelessness.  For instance, there is a particularly strong, though not unchallenged, cultural understanding in the United States that homelessness is an issue of personal and/or moral failure (homeless persons often carrying the stigmas of mental illness, alcohol or drug addiction – whether true or not, seen in light of choices, rather than the result of, not simply choices, but complex systems, historically marginalized groups, institutions, traumas, illnesses, etc.), and that the answer is the individual’s ability to rise above his or her circumstances, his/her addictions and vices, to rise above poverty and homelessness.

This view often holds personal responsibility (and the lack thereof) as the primary cause of and answer to homelessness.  The problem this presents is that homelessness is not then to be addressed as a larger social concern; if it is not lack of housing, institutionalized practices, laws and systems that continue to contribute to and/ or perpetuate homelessness, then homelessness is a drain on our societies, but not our collective responsibility to help solve.

While there is no doubt that an individual’s will is crucial to an individual’s success at meeting the desired result, this worldview of homelessness does not do justice to the complexity of the issue on individual or macro levels, and does not account for myriad variables, including a lack of affordable housing, and a lack of public will to provide it.  One of the biggest criticism of those who championed the “urban camping ban” in years past, and fought against Initiative 300’s “right to survive” is that homelessness is being criminalized and attempts to be made ‘less visible’, whilst public will is not being shown to actually address ending homelessness.  In essence, hiding the problem is not justice, and does nothing to solve it.

In order to address a vast and complex issue like homelessness, different and creative responses must be crafted.  Housing First, though not a particularly new model is one such attempt.  Housing First is a homeless assistance model that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life.

Responding in line with an understanding of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, this approach responds to fulfilling a person’s basic needs, i.e. food and housing, before attending to anything that can be addressed after fulfilling a person’s basic needs: such as employment, attending to substance use issues, budgeting, etc.  Housing first also prioritizes the involvement and self-determination of the person being housed and provides supportive services to those individuals to help them remain housed.

If we wish to address the issue of homelessness effectively, we will need to adjust our broad and ineffective cultural paradigms, and we will have to move from methods that have not proven effective, to those that create movement toward ending homelessness.

By Phillip Bruce 

Phillip works with homeless individuals in Denver, Colorado, United States, to find practical and long-term solutions to homelessness.


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