Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Homelessness Persists in Boston

Although hundreds of institutions exist in Boston with the mission of alleviating homelessness, there are still over seven thousand homeless individuals according to a 2008-2009 Census Report, many of whom live in the streets year round.

The Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 includes in the definition of homeless those who are forced by lack of regular access to conventional dwelling to spend nights in shelters, locations not intended to be dwelling places, or locations where personal safety is compromised. The Census Report showed a homeless population in Boston of 7,861, an 11% increase since the previous year. 437 of those individuals lived on the streets, as opposed to seeking aid in an emergency shelter.

Christopher Jencks wrote in The Homeless, “Late in the 1970s Americans began noticing more people sleeping in public places, wandering the streets with their possessions in shopping bags…[T]he faces of the homeless often suggest depths of despair that we would rather not imagine, much less confront in the flesh. Daily contact with the homeless also raises troubling…questions about our moral obligations to strangers. At a political level, the spread of homelessness suggests that something has gone fundamentally wrong with America’s economic or social institutions.”

Jencks cites a place to live that offers “a modicum of privacy and stability” as the most important thing that can be done in improving the lives of the homeless. In addition, he claims solutions regarding housing are generally easy to devise and evaluate. Yet those on the streets time and again shun shelters, the venues by which this service is, at least temporarily, provided.

On an average night in 1987, only a third of homeless single adults slept in shelters in the US. Lack of beds is not the problem, as sometimes 30 percent of shelter beds are empty. Jim Baumohl writes in Homelessness in America, “Sustained homelessness…[has] the potential for doing a great deal of damage to the human spirit, and, thus, to create divides where none existed before.”

This past spring break, we completed a UROP and CUSE-funded research project in Boston, in which we investigated why so many individuals are still living on the streets when there is an abundance of shelters. We were able to interview eight staff members of Pine Street Inn, survey 21 homeless individuals, and complete two oral histories, which can be found at https://sites.google.com/ a/nd.edu/bostonhomeless/ home.

Of the homeless individuals surveyed, duration of homelessness ranged from three months to thirteen years. The reasons given for their presence on the streets were substance abuse, psychological disorders, aversion to shelter rules and conditions, the ability to survive on their own, possession of an animal, and lack of knowledge about shelters. The predominant reason by far was an aversion to existing shelter conditions. Pine Street staff members also acknowledged shelter conditions may be a deterrent. One Street Outreach team member admitted she would not stay at Pine Street if faced with the option of that or the streets.

Some homeless individuals interviewed had high spirits and a keen sense of humor. One man burst around the side of the outreach van as I was preparing his meal, shouting, “Ogabogaboga! Homeless people!” in a good-natured and effective attempt to startle me. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Larry lamented, “Everything just seems to be going bad, ya know?”

Another man detailed the events leading to his homelessness, which included the death of his beloved, eviction, alcohol abuse, unemployment, and imprisonment. A line from his journal, which he donated to our cause, reads, “The HaNd of Faith HAS TAken ALL wiThout WArNiNg or Reason!” Despite this despairing start, he adds later, “I will not fail or turn back…I rise with every sunrise.”

Incidental findings of the study included several issues related to the support structure for the homeless. The guest-staff relations are often perceived as poor. Assistance, although perhaps of substandard quality, is readily available for those who want it. Housing programs that provide sufficient support are claimed to have been largely effective, in particular the “Reach” program implemented by Pine Street. Finally, only about 10% of the homeless population fall into the “chronic” category, which takes up approximately half of the funding.

The investigation left us with the following questions: is getting more people in shelters a worthy goal? how can shelters be improved? will improving shelters have a positive effect, or will it enable homelessness? how can those with substance and psychological problems be better cared for? is homelessness a psychological condition related to locus of control? These and other questions will be discussed at the upcoming Undergraduate Scholars’ Conference.

Katie Petrik and Julian Murphy are sophomores. They’re now quite adept at approaching strangers and asking personal questions.


Anonymous said...

You guys, you have no idea how important this kind of research is. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your interest in homelessness and your persistent search for answers.

Greer Hannan said...

Great post and great research! Too often homelessness is perceived primarily as rooflessness. As was evident in your study, the factors and causes of homelessness are as complex as a human person herself.

Anonymous said...

I commend you for giving of your time and talents to some of those among us who need them the most. You serve as mature, wise role models by devoting your spring break to serve the homeless. Godspeed in your future endeavors.