Homelessness in America: A Multifaceted Issue



Kristen Turiano

Aiming to increase student awareness about poverty issues, the Colgate Hunger Outreach Program (CHOP) and Habitat for Humanity teamed up to organize this year’s Hunger and Homelessness Week.

The series of events, beginning last Friday with a brown bag lunch, sought to send the message that pressing issues of hunger and homelessness are of both national and local concern.

On Saturday, Habitat for Humanity held “SHANTYTOWN,” a public demonstration on the Hamilton Village Green where tents were set up to accept donations.

Tom Lorello, executive director of Shelter, Inc. in Boston, visited campus Monday to share his own experiences reaching out to the poor and his disillusionment with the poverty situation in this country.

In a brown bag that day, “Homelessness: Abolishing the Stereotype,” he introduced his speech by instructing everyone to close their eyes and picture a homeless person, then share their images with the group.

The answers were indeed stereotypical: a middle-aged man huddled in ragged clothes and an overcoat, a grouchy bag-lady roaming the streets, an addict muttering to himself. This image, Lorello said, is “natural,” yet it does not even breach the surface of the true extent of the homeless.

“In Massachusetts,” Lorello said, “the average age of a homeless person is eight years old.”

Over the past 20 to 30 years, the portion of homeless people who are women and their small children has been on the rise.

“There are 800,000 homeless people on a given night in the U.S.,” Lorello said. “20,000 of them are children.”

He is not only interested in statistics. Working with the homeless of the past 20 years, he began on the streets of Boston, visiting shelters and seeing numerous families, he witnessed firsthand that the image many people have about homelessness is indeed false.

A student in the audience questioned how this stereotype could be eliminated.

“I’m not sure how important it is that everyone doesn’t have the stereotype,” Lorello said. “Homelessness is a manifestation of poverty. I’m more concerned about policymakers.”

Lorello expanded his topic that night in a lecture titled, “Homelessness and Public Policy: What’s Next?” With a mission to eliminate homelessness from the Boston area, Lorello cited lack of governmental funding as a main obstacle to progress.

Homeless people who Lorello classifies as “chronic,” or people who are homeless for significant periods of time, typically have to demonstrate that they can act like responsible adults before they are given housing.

Most of these “chronic” homeless people, as Lorello explained, have serious limitations, such as untreated mental illness, alcoholism or drug addiction. Before an agency like Lorello’s would give them housing, they typically had to prove they were ready to live on their own. For these people, this would mean seeking help for their problems.

“It turns out that most people were unable to meet the threshold requirement,” Lorello said.

Instead, Lorello’s organization decided to take the “Housing First” approach; that is, provide people with housing without meeting any treatment criteria.

The social worker believes in “Role Recovery,” a philosophy seeking to reinstate homeless people’s dignity as human beings. “Housing First,” according to Lorello, “is housing, then treatment, if they want it.” Once housed, people are not obligated to seek mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Some people have concerns about this method.

“What if someone were really high and set the house on fire?” a student asked.

“We don’t have a lot of evidence for chronic substance abuse, but in my mind, there are plenty of people with homes who drink,” Lorello said.

With 2,600 homeless people in the greater Boston area, Lorello is optimistic that homelessness can be ended by providing this finite number of people with housing.

“So the question is: Can we end homelessness? I think we can,” he said.