Phoenix advocates fight to end homelessness

Nonprofit | 1 Dec, 2015 |

It is a typical Wednesday night for André House of Hospitality, a local organization that provides services like dinner, showers, laundry and transitional housing for the homeless. Individuals suffering from homelessness wait outside the kitchen while volunteers work like an oiled machine to prepare the meal that will be ready at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday night is hot dog night, or “Weenie Wednesday”, and around 100 guests are expected to show up ready to eat.

Jay Minich, André House’s director of finance and administration, said that the mission of the hospitality service provider is to follow the precedent set by the two priests that founded André House in 1984. The catholic organization’s purpose, Minich said, is to follow the guidelines set in the book of Matthew in the bible that challenges followers to feed the hungry and clothe the poor – to provide for the needs of the community while maintaining the dignity of those who are dependent on these services.

Minich said there are four components that challenge the fight to end homelessness: the number of affordable housing units available, the crime-free housing model, the lack of wraparound service availability, and low wages. He said the difficulty in overcoming these issues is that they often work in tandem, and there is an attitude of “out of sight, out of mind,” in regards to the homeless that is widespread through the nation.

“There is a societal mindset of people not wanting to be inconvenienced by the homeless population, and I get it. I’ve worked on the frontlines for two years, and some days it feels like a little two year old, driving you nuts,” Minich said. “But real compassion, real welcome, and real loving acceptance happens when you look beyond what you see. When people with means start to take the time to talk and listen to where this person is coming from or where they have been, and start forming connections… lives start to change.”

The concept of the homeless shelter was designed to rehabilitate and provide services so that individuals who are homeless could get back on their feet. In this way, Minich said, the homeless shelter system has failed. Although the services homeless shelters provide are necessary and valuable for society, they are more likely to sustain the lives of the homeless than to create a path out of poverty. In response an alternative solution, a system of government-funded housing called “Housing First,” was created.

Housing First is a program that provides rent money through vouchers for individuals suffering from homelessness to gain affordable housing. Landlords also benefitted from the program as these individuals could fill their vacancy that would naturally occur, without risk that the tenant would not pay rent. The system was originally launched in California in 1988, but has since spread to states across the country when it was found to be successful. Organizations that operate with Housing First programs have different qualifications for the vouchers, but they all operate under the same principle that housing is a basic human right.

Michael Shore is the CEO of HOM Inc., a property management company that specializes in providing housing for the homeless individuals that mentally ill.  The company provides a variety of services including facilitating lease agreements, Housing Quality Standards (HQS) inspections, and managing the tenant’s rent. The rent agreement is set at 30 percent of the tenant’s monthly income. (The monthly income factor is key. If an individual is making zero dollars, 100 percent of the rent would be paid for. )

HOM Inc. was created in 1994, and has for over 20 years been successful in finding individuals experiencing homelessness housing. Shore said that the main source of strife for the company is the current change in market for affordable housing. He said that landlords that were once knocking on their doors to work with the company are now closing doors to homeless individuals. The problem, Shore said, is the lack of vacancy in affordable housing complexes. Landlords now have the option between your average Joe Schmo, and an individual on the voucher system that comes along with the complications of housing inspections, a possible criminal record, and a limit to the rental price.

“People who have experienced homelessness and have a serious mental illness definitely have a higher rate of instances with the criminal justice system,” Shore said. “When you have an apartment complex sitting on tons of vacancies, they are much more willing to discuss the reasons behind the criminal convictions, how old they are, if they have case managers or the treatment these people have done. With this market, landlords are less willing because they don’t have to take it… it isn’t about having a heart or not, it’s just business.”

The director of marketing and public relations at the Phoenix Rescue Mission, Nicole Peña, has seen first hand the difference between treating homelessness like a business, versus a recovery center. She said that it has been more beneficial for the individuals that come in through their doors to be treated with respect and dignity, rather than just another drug addict.

“A lot of people here will talk about really hitting their rock bottom, and half of that is the separation from their community and their relationships,” Peña said. “Many times they have burned those bridges.  At the Mission, we work through a process of rekindling their relationships if they are able to be repaired, so the next time that this happens they don’t have to come back here.”

Shore said that the experience of homelessness itself is a traumatic experience, and the concept of recovery is important in services for the homeless.

“You start to lose your purpose, your identity and your place in society. In order to get those things back, you have to approach it from a trauma- informed care perspective,” Shore said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a veteran that has PTSD, or a chronically homeless individual or family… it’s just traumatic to experience homelessness.”

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