Beyond managing homelessness

“Meet Singapore’s Nomad Families”, a recent Sunday Times article welcomes the average Singaporean. Homelessness is a major issue in all large cities. The numbers of homeless people worldwide have grown steadily in recent years. A recent estimate states that there are 100 million people worldwide who are homeless. Although the homeless are often “hidden” in a society like Singapore, Singapore is by no means exempted from this worldwide dilemma.

To be sure, a homeless person obviously needs a home. But such a simple observation overlooks the reason why the homeless have no home. Simply demanding more housing for the homeless is like saying that a person with a fever can be cured with a cold bath to bring down the temperature and ignoring the infection causing the fever.

People who are homeless are so for various reasons. Some have made poor choices in life, some are involved with alcohol or drugs, yet others are part of the system of generational poverty in which inadequate life skills are handed down from one generation to the next, resulting in an entire culture of people who do not know how to take advantage of the educational, cultural or employment advantages available to them. Some of the homeless are also those who may have had some education, a job and a place to live, but without a “safety net” of family or friends to help them through a difficult time, found themselves evicted from their homes after they lost their job or had a financial crisis. But whatever the circumstances, homelessness is but the symptom of root problems.

In addressing the problem of homelessness, the focus has to shift from emergency shelters to prevention. Emergency shelters should only be temporary and transitional solutions, to provide a safe housing environment in the interim. The different agencies who want to focus their resources on preventive efforts should:

1. Involve local governments; because the homeless usually qualify for various kinds of public assistance. Voluntary Welfare Organizations need to be involved in coordinating services and referring clients to various programs.

2. Encourage retraining and upgrading; because the workers in the low-income bracket are the most vulnerable to be homeless. As such, they should upgrade and/or retrain, so that they can develop marketable skills to take on and succeed in new, higher value-added, and emerging jobs in the knowledge based economy.

3. Enhance families’ capacity to help them; policies and programs should aim to support and supplement family functioning. Wherever possible, policies and programs should encourage and reinforce marital, parental, and even extended family commitment and stability.

4. Create awareness; about services available for the “at-risk” group among mainstream service providers like schools, utilities suppliers, banks, religious institutions, etc.

5. Launch Public Education campaigns; through public service advertising to modify public attitudes and to promote responsible home ownership, to encourage homeowners and homebuyers to seek housing counseling.

6. Consider forming an inter-agency coordinating body; to coordinate between all the relevant players who are involved in prevention of homelessness (e.g. shelters, Voluntary Welfare Organizations, schools, religious institutions, government, etc). This inter-agency will do a “gap-analysis” to determine the character of the homeless and potentially homeless in the community, the services most in need and how best to provide these services in a coordinated manner.

The problem of homelessness is very complex and simple solutions are often not available in trying to address this dilemma. It is precisely because simple solutions are not available that different agencies with various expertises in service must work together. Long-term plans must be developed not to manage, but to end homelessness.

Views also found in: THE ONLINE CITIZEN