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Expanding access to camps will not solve the homelessness problem

Written by financemounir

by James Whitford

While on a city leader’s tour through the Watered Gardens, my religious group’s mission in southwest Missouri, I saw Josh, a man in his twenties, wiping the tables in the dining room. When I introduced the two men, Josh shared how grateful he was to be in a place that provided the tools he needed to overcome addiction and homelessness. He commented that he had “never been asked to work” on previous programs with lenient qualifications for assistance, which resulted in him getting “in too much trouble”. He added, “What I really needed was this.”

Josh’s previous stay in public housing, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing First program, expected little from him — and even less.

The Housing First program aims to connect people experiencing homelessness to permanent housing quickly “without preconditions such as sobriety, treatment, or service participation requirements.” However, it has the unfortunate consequence of trapping people in a cycle of dependency. Without life changing support, it is no wonder Josh went back into homelessness before coming to our facility.

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One of the clearly stated goals of the Housing First program in the 2010 report of the Federal Interagency Council on Homelessness was to “provide durable, supportive housing to prevent and end chronic homelessness.” Ten years and $16.2 billion later, the same federal agency admitted that while “funding to help the homeless increased each year,” “unsheltered homelessness increased 20.5% nationwide.”

A young homeless man named Seth admitted to me that he left his living arrangements with his mother and grandmother because a worker at the First Housing Agency told him that as homeless, he would likely qualify for a free apartment. Another homeless man looking for work told me that when he answered “yes” to an agency worker’s question if he had suffered trauma, he was referred to a psychiatrist, diagnosed and placed on a housing waiting list. He told me later, “I just wanted to get a job.” No consideration was given as to what his real needs were.

Increasingly in our mission, we hear that people are waiting for public housing, rather than looking for work. Work restores dignity and provides an escape from dependence, while luxury does the exact opposite.

Federal housing grants that incentivize organizations to cast a net into society and drag individuals into a welfare trap have rules that create intergenerational poverty and discourage employment. This is bad for societies and worse for families. For those who really need help, programs should focus on transitioning to independence, not complete dependence on government. But changes in the law relating to transitional programs should be treated with caution.

In more than two decades of my work with the homeless, I have witnessed increasing numbers of homeless people coupled with increased government social incentives. So, I was surprised to learn that my native Missouri was doubling down on this approach.

Recently enacted Missouri House Bill 1606 is an attempt to solve some of the growing homeless challenges in our state — but it won’t have the intended effect some lawmakers had hoped. Starting January 1, state and federal funds will be made available for “parking areas” and “camping facilities” to be used as “housing” for homeless individuals. The accompanying financial memo gives a hyperlink to 39 Missouri State Parks that “will likely be able to support the homeless…six months at a time.” This is a losing situation.

A quick review of the bill reveals a skewed carrot-and-stick approach. Carrots pay shelter operators performance payments and bonuses if they meet or exceed guidelines. The wand allows the Missouri Attorney General to sue communities that fail to meet enforcement policy expectations against sleeping or camping on public sidewalks. And homeless individuals who “camped out” without permission would now be subject to a Class C misdemeanor.

Essentially, government-funded “camping first” policies will incentivize publicly funded charitable groups to become more dependent on taxpayers while making homeless individuals criminals.

All of this, combined with serious public safety concerns regarding housing individuals in areas designated for family entertainment, creates a losing case for the Show-Me State.

Camping First is doomed for the same reason the housing program failed first – it focuses impersonally on a societal problem rather than the individual. It will not help men like Josh or Seth move on to a life of perfection and prosperity.

Genuine Empathy provides individuals with an opportunity to thrive by building meaningful relationships with accountability. And impersonal government that increases public housing will not lead to long-term liberation from dependence for those willing to experience it.

James Whitford He is the founder and CEO of True Charity, a non-profit organization. He and his wife, Marsha, run a mission for the homeless in Joplin.

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