With federal funding drying up, homelessness is a problem that must be solved at the local level, a national advocate for the homeless told a forum on the topic Saturday in Lawrence.
Paul Boden, organizing director for the Western Regional Advocacy Project, was one of a number of experts to address the forum "Homelessness and Housing: Where We Are Today and Where Do We Go From Here?" on Saturday afternoon. The forum was sponsored by the Coalition for Homeless Concerns, at Trinity Lutheran Church.
"Facts are easy to come by when it comes to homelessness," said David Smith, chair of the sociology department at Kansas University, before citing a few: 45 million people in the United States live below the federal poverty line; 11 million Americans are actively seeking employment and unable to find it; one in four children live in poverty. "Solutions are much more difficult."
Boden agreed. He said he chooses not to offer fixes at events like these because localities have to come up with their own priorities and solutions. He noted that a public-housing campaign in New York in the 1930s prompted the forming of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, showing the difference local communities can make.
"Now we're losing what public housing exists," he said, pointing out that HUD's budget was cut 77 percent from 1978 to 1983 alone, leading to the creation of emergency shelters nationwide. "The right for a decent place to sleep is a human right."
One victim of the continuing cuts has been the Lawrence-Douglas County Housing Authority. Federal funding for its transitional housing program was reduced by half last year, said Executive Director Shannon Oury. The program had annually provided 30 to 35 families with vouchers to obtain housing from a private landlord.
"We can serve many fewer people than we were able to originally because of cuts from HUD to the city," she said, calling it a "tragedy" of sorts, as half the families the Housing Authority assists have children. "We had a program that was working very well and we lost significant funding for it."
Another barrier to eradicating homelessness is that the homeless too often fight among themselves, Boden said, when they must organize if they want better treatment by society. They're the ones being thrown in jail for crimes like camping out in public spaces and loitering, he said.
"It isn't a criminal act to be homeless," Boden remarked, saying our nation shouldn't judge people as dysfunctional just because they don't have a place to live. "We're saying society has some stuff it has to work out too."
Boden speaks from experience: A suburban kid growing up in New York, he was suddenly thrown into homelessness after the death of his mother in the early 1980s. "What I learned was there are two Americas," he said.
To make them more equal, people have to stand up for their rights. "I think we have to be more entitled," he said. "It's OK for us to expect housing, health and education."
One of the ways Lawrence stands out for addressing homelessness is the Lawrence Community Shelter, which last year moved into a new, more spacious location. However, the space has lately been filled to near capacity almost every night and winter isn't even here yet, said Executive Director Loring Henderson. He said he's considering asking the city to increase the capacity figure of 125 for when it's cold outside.
"We're full all the time," he remarked. "Last week, we turned away inquiries from 22 different families looking for shelter."
Henderson noted that people on disability or making minimum wage generally can't afford to live in a "high rent town" like Lawrence, which lacks affordable housing. He said some possible solutions include the construction of a sober house for recovering drug addicts; permanent supportive housing for people with mental illnesses, who make up a large percentage of the homeless population; better access to health care, particularly for those with traumatic brain injuries; and more job training and internship opportunities.
Doug Wallace, coordinator of the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, says he often has to convince Kansans, especially in rural areas, that there really are homeless people in the state and that solutions aren't going to come from afar. "It truly takes a community to end homelessness," he said. "It takes everyone working together to end homelessness."