Jun 18, 2012
A report on homelessness by a Humboldt State University institute says peer support, vocational training and inclusive governance are among the best ways to get the local homeless back on their feet and ease their plight.
The report by HSU’s Altruistic Personality and Pro-social Behavior Institute zeroes in on peer support through “giving back”—the homeless helping each other through various forms of outreach and assistance, either informally or under the auspices of a social services agency.
This approach renews their sense of worth and belonging, according to the report, “Reducing Harm and Improving Outcomes in Community Responses to Homelessness.” It was led by Ronnie Swartz, chair of HSU’s Department of Social Work and Co-Director of the Altruistic Personality and Pro-social Behavior Institute.
Swartz and his student research assistants reviewed the current research and scholarly literature on homelessness, sifted through recent data about the homeless in Humboldt County and gathered collective local wisdom about how best to respond to homelessness. They developed recommendations based on local input.
The literature suggests that peer-support opportunities are most effective when they are paired with a professional service provider that offers structure and supervision—“as long as the pairing allows for the relevance of local knowledge and the lived experience of consumers,” according to the report.
The emphasis on vocational training stems from the success with programs that go beyond education to encourage individuals to supplement and sustain their vocational skills by serving as peer educators, community advocates and service providers for the homeless.
Like peer support and “giving back,” this approach provides the homeless with social connections and links to the larger community. They gain a sense of ownership as well as accomplishment from their extra- vocational activities, like case management and job support.
The HSU review also singles out self-governance as a useful community response: assuring the homeless have a say in the services they use and how they are administered. This means involving them in the organization of community support and soliciting their client feedback. Homelessness services should be based in part on the personal knowledge and experience of those who use them, the report states.
Communities also should emphasize responsiveness to immediate needs, according to the HSU researchers. The young are among those most in need of immediate attention. The report cites an independent 2001 study which found that the top reasons for young people leaving housing and winding up homeless included being exiled by parents (51%), alcohol and drug abuse (37%), sexual abuse (31%) and emotional abuse (27%), among others.
These individuals need comprehensive services, from immediate aid (meals and showers) to long-term help (behavioral health and substance abuse treatment.)
The report summarizes figures about the estimated number of homeless in Humboldt County, but cautions that the data are limited because they are derived from so-called point-in-time calculations—counts in a single space at a single location during short periods.
A point-in-time count conducted in January 2011 over a three-day span by the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition revealed the following:
HSU’s “Reducing Harm” survey rejects the common assumption that only certain kinds of behavior lead to homelessness. The causes are numerous and range from personal circumstances to national policies, according to both the scholarly literature and local community sentiment.
Another key finding is that a continuum of housing is needed to break the cycle of homelessness over time. In the report’s words, “The data demonstrate that a significant range (or continuum) of housing options is necessary to best help people out of homelessness. The range goes all the way from safe ways for people to sleep outside to permanent supportive structures.”
The report adds, “Transitional housing facilities allow people who are homeless to begin reintegrating into the traditional housing sector.”
One alternative is single-residence occupancies, known as SROs. They are small, affordable efficiency apartments designed for one person with a limited or fixed income.
The Humboldt State report is posted in full at http://www.humboldt.edu/altruism/institute.html.