Federal homeless plan is cause for hope

A statement from Sherry Pitney, Rockford Rescue Mission CEO:

Homelessness has been increasing nationally over the past few years, and we have experienced it here at the Mission. During COVID-19, we have had to reduce the number of Crisis Center beds available in order to protect our guests by social distancing. But even with that reduction, we are still serving more people every day now than we did several years ago.

We think a federal response announced last week gives new hope. The new plan is called Expanding the Toolbox: The Whole-of-Government Response to Homelessness. It was developed by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness—which included looking at successful, faith-based approaches. This plan finally addresses root causes of homelessness and moves past partial solutions that have only worsened the problem.

The number of unsheltered homeless people in the U.S. rose 20.5 percent between 2014 and 2019. During that same stretch of time, we saw a 22-percent increase in the number of people we serve here at the Mission. These increases happened even though federal spending on homeless assistance doubled in the past decade. The funding centered on a “housing first” approach — simply providing homeless people with government-subsidized housing vouchers. No preconditions were required to receive these vouchers, like a minimum income threshold or even sobriety.

I believe these were good, honest efforts by government to help homeless people. But housing alone is not the answer. If you simply drop someone into housing without also giving them life skills, job skills and spiritual help, you’ve only given false hope. It simply becomes a revolving door.

The new federal plan looks at the whole person. Affordable housing is one area of emphasis, but it doesn’t take priority over everything else. For example, areas like the dignity of work and trauma-informed care get mentioned prominently. Those are already high priorities at the Mission, through our Works! Center, our Crisis Centers and Life Recovery programs and our participation in the Trauma Informed Community initiative.

I am so encouraged by all of this. It validates the approach we have taken for decades here at the Mission, and I think it can move our country forward toward better loving our neighbors. Moving someone away from homelessness and addiction requires that we serve the whole person—practically, physically, emotionally and especially, spiritually.