I live in Portland, Ore., and have worked directly with the homeless for two decades in nonprofits. And what I’ve learned is that we are failing them.
We feed and clothe the homeless but do not give any other meaningful support to prepare them to leave the streets. Advocates justify behaviors like drug use, theft and person-to-person crimes because the homeless are victims.
Yet the more I did outreach, the more I realized we were creating dependency. The homeless went from hoping to be fed to waiting to be fed. They needed help with clothing, transportation, making phone calls, cleaning up camp, etc. They stopped trying.
I remember a client who called himself Utah. He was in his late 30s and living in the doorway of an old dance studio under the Hawthorne Bridge. He had piles of junk stacked around the doorway with only a small hole to crawl in and out of. I delivered food and supplies to him every other day for months. I went on vacation and returned a few weeks later finding him barely alive. I had to crawl into the hole and rouse him. He had not drank water or eaten food in days. He told me he was waiting for me to bring it to him.
That was when I realized I was part of the problem.
Are we helping them or hurting them? My employers insisted our job was to keep them alive with basic needs and that ending homelessness could not happen until a major shift in society made us all equal.
This was not why I got into social services. I wanted to make a difference right now. I wanted to help these people not just survive, but thrive.
We have all heard the saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This is what we needed to do. This was empowerment.
I used this new approach with a client who, for six years, was living in a tent outside a homeless shelter. I gave him responsibility and laid out expectations. I told him I wanted to help him get sober, get a job and get off the streets. As he embraced my new approach, I witnessed a change in his energy and demeanor. He started taking his sobriety seriously and began to contribute to his well-being. Every day I saw an improvement.
But his newfound empowerment didn’t mean I was no longer needed. To get off the streets homeless people need help navigating our complex social-service system. This is what a good teacher would do with a struggling student: provide guidance and support and never give up.
Over the next two months, my client got clean, moved into a transitional housing program and found employment. Eventually, he went back to college and completed his degree. Married with children and living in a house, he is now a functional part of our community with responsibilities, expectations and rewards. Changing our approach is necessary. Thousands of people are languishing and dying every day — and this will continue if we do nothing.
We will end this humanitarian crisis not with big budgets or unrealistic utopian fantasies but by empowering people to reach their fullest potential.
Kevin Dahlgren is a leading homelessness expert exposing the dysfunction of our social-service system.