Ending Homelessness and Ending Poverty Are NOT The Same Thing – They May Not Even Be Related

In America, there are about 46.5 million people living in poverty at any point in time. There are about 1.2 million households living in public housing. About 600,000 people are homeless at any given point in time, and there are an estimated 3.5 million different people that experience homelessness in any given year. The number of people experiencing homelessness and the number of people experiencing poverty are nowhere close to the same number. And the number of households living in public housing comes nowhere close to matching the number of people living in poverty. (I’d try to demonstrate the same thing in places like Canada, but there isn’t a common PIT count or anything similar to the AHAR. Where there is PIT Count data in Canada, the same arguments I present here work.)

Income has a strong relationship to the presence (or absence) of economic poverty. Income does not have a strong relationship to the prediction of homelessness. So maybe we need to rethink all questions we ask related to income.

Another oft-mentioned statement that people spending 50% or more of their gross monthly income on housing are at risk of homelessness. Problem is, no one ever really defines what is meant by “risk” in this instance in a credible way. And the statement, as it turns out, seems to be false or at least misleading. Most people that spend 50% or more of their monthly income on their rent do NOT experience homelessness.

Time and again there are advocates and others that state Rapid Re-Housing or Housing First programs must be a failure because people are still living in poverty. Programs that get people out of homelessness were never intended to get people out of poverty. You can’t claim a housing intervention is a failure just because it didn’t do something it never claimed to do.

You don’t need to end poverty to end homelessness – most poor people have never and will never experience homelessness. Maybe it is time we took a look at what economically poor people in your community do in order to find and maintain housing, rather than thinking getting out of poverty is the answer to homelessness.

Increasing income for people is not a bad thing. Heck, it should be encouraged and a focus of attention for each person you get housed. But, it is not the only thing, nor does future housing success hinge upon your ability to make this happen. And there is absolutely no reason to keep people homeless longer to sort out their income before they get housing. You are not setting them up for failure if you don’t get them up with more income first. You are helping them prepare for a housed, but economically precarious future – like tens of millions of others.

Maybe in a perfect world every community would have the ability to provide government assisted housing to folks experiencing homelessness that is geared to her/his income level. Maybe in some utopia every person spending 50% or more of their income on housing would have access to rent-geared-to-income housing. But that is more fantasy than reality. And while it may be preferable to have it that way, it is unlikely that there will ever be an instance where supply meets demand.

In conclusion, let me say this:


–       Increasing income is desirable, but not essential for future housing success, given most people that live in extreme economic poverty are never homeless;

–       There is likely much to be learned from low income households in your community of how they accessed and maintain housing;

–       Every time someone laments the lack of affordable housing in your community – while more is always desirable – there are likely hundreds or even thousands of households that are living in poverty in your community that are housed and not homeless – and there is no way they are all living in existing affordable or publicly assisted housing;

–       We need to do a better job educating ourselves and the general public and policy makers that programs that end homelessness are not designed to be programs that get people out of poverty;

–       We need to strategically work through for whom affordable housing should be created, and which households should have access to existing affordable housing stock – and an assessment to help us figure this out would be helpful to determine when something is “just” an affordability issue, and not an issue where other more intensive supports would be beneficial.


The Reason for Your Faith-Based Service

A friend recently told me that my message of working on housing as the first goal, avoiding a focus on sobriety first as a necessary step in order to access housing, and a very secular approach to addressing homelessness was not met favorably by some leaders within large faith-based homeless-focused ministries.

I am a little troubled by that given I have very positive relations with a lot of faith-based groups that offer services and housing to homeless and formerly homeless persons. It got me thinking about what the distinctions are between various groups that do what they do in the name of Jesus Christ (same guy, I think, with different interpretations of who He was and what He wants of humanity) and why some faith-based groups would welcome my message and others feel threatened by it. [As an aside, I am well aware that other faith groups are involved in ending homelessness, but I see greater variation within Christ-followers.]

In July I had the chance to hear John of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions speak at the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference, and I also spoke with him one on one. In a transformational speech he gave at the conference, he remarked that 81% of Gospel Rescue Missions no longer require prayer prior to service. After I tweeted such a remark enthusiastically in my conference summary, several people chimed in that this relates to food service, not a bed. Others simply stated based upon their community’s Gospel Rescue Mission this could not be true. Others still (for example, some places in Oklahoma) wanted me to know that I may be relaying messages of change, but I should know with certainty that the Gospel Rescue Mission in their community speaks with venom when they state my name. [I appreciate I am provocative, but that doesn’t mean I am anti-Christian.]

This all got me thinking (again) about the interface between religion and service delivery in ending homelessness. This is not a blog directed to Rescue Missions, but I would encourage them to read it – along with the litany of inter-faith and ecumenical organizations that rally together in community after community to provide services and supports in their places of worship.

Here are the nine questions I came up with for faith-based groups involved in providing services to homeless people:

  1. Do you label evidence of what works in ending homelessness as “secular” or “worldly” and tell your staff and service participants to avoid it or dismiss what the evidence suggests as being evil or incompatible with your Gospel mission/central teachings/doctrine?

I am not going to suggest rightness or wrongness or enter into a debate on science versus beliefs. I only ask that organizations be transparent to let service participants know one way or the other in the same way, for example, a school district may be transparent on teaching evolution or creationism.

  1. Does anything that your organization does divide up people into “us” and “them” and suggest that “us” is better than “them” whether that be in the herelife or afterlife?

The experience of homelessness is fluid and the experience of homeless people in using services is even more fluid. Divisions within the fluidity can be difficult to navigate. If there is a side that you are asking people to choose, be clear what it is and what the consequences are of choosing or not choosing that side.

  1. Do you try to change the behavior of each person that encounters your programs and focus on modification of behavior of each person with checklists, dos and do not’s, rules and reasons for becoming excluded or falling out of favor with your organization if they do not meet these expectations – in order to please God (or any other Deity)?

Behavior modification happens in loads of organizations, not just faith-based organizations. I have seen government funded and even operated programs that attempt behavior modification. What is different is whether there are rules for inclusion and exclusion. If a person does not subscribe to your beliefs and expected behaviors can they still get service from your organization or are they kicked out? That is the real question.

  1. Do you see the weakness of the human condition as an affront to God that must be repressed and eradicated?

As a remarkably imperfect person myself, I want to hope and believe that God’s love is unconditional. But people with circumstances that may be characterized as worse/more severe than my own exist in society, including within the homeless population. There are serious questions to be answered in the difference between supports and efforts and social control; options to make improvements versus disdain for “sinful” attributes and behaviors.

  1. Do participants in your programs have to pin all of their hopes, dreams and aspirations on the afterlife – or are they allowed to (and encouraged) to live in the here and now?

There is nothing wrong or improper about a belief in an afterlife, except when it unduly influences how homeless people are treated in the current day-to-day life. If I don’t get a meal or a bed or access to a case manager because I am deemed a sinner than needs to repent in order to achieve an acceptable afterlife, how does that address my needs in the here and now if I am not in a place psychologically or spiritually to address that right now?

  1. Do service participants have to surrender themselves to God – and are you the vehicle for which that surrender should occur?

Submission is a concept that has existed in various cultures for millennia. Participants may choose to make this surrender. The question is whether they must do so, and if doing so has particular pecuniary or other interests specific to your organization that should be made known to the person prior to surrender.

  1. Do people have to worship/pray to receive services in your organization or can they abstain?

If you offer shelter or food or access to basic needs – and likely you do – there is a matter of whether people must share your beliefs in order to access those things – or at least put themselves in the presence of it. Or can they choose not to share your beliefs and still access those basic human needs?

Or perhaps you are of the ilk that provides tiers of services based upon the extent to which you believe? For example, a bed is reserved for those that believe – a bed may be available for non-believers on a first come, first served basis.

  1. Do you suggest certain behaviors or attributes are sinful because of your interpretation of the bible/scripture or because of doctrine within your religion – to the detriment of the people you try hard to serve? 

I admit this one sounds much more judgmental than the others, but I bring it up because these sorts of interpretations of scripture abound and have serious consequences on whether people get access to service. In some small to medium sized communities where a faith-based organization is the only shelter service, for example, I have encountered gay and lesbian people living outside because they were not welcome in the shelter – even though they wanted shelter – unless they admitted they were a sinner because of their sexual preference and sought redemption. In other places, I have encountered large youth serving organizations that do not provide or allow service participants to have access to condoms because they believe premarital sex is such an affront to God that abstinence is all that is preached – even when they have full knowledge that service participants are engaged in sex whether through relationships or transactions with customers.

  1. Are you serving homeless people, or are you trying to increase the size of your congregation – or both?

Evangelization is a huge part of many faith groups. People in society have free will, generally, to choose affiliation and participation. A free society in a democracy (not a theocracy) can continue to do so. The bigger question is the appropriateness of requirements of affiliation, conversion, baptism, etc. in order to receive services. When an organization makes membership and participation mandatory in order to get access to basic human needs like housing or food, it becomes coercive. It requires a (perhaps) downtrodden or broken spirit to enter into an unequal power dynamic in order to get out of homelessness. The central feature of these relationships is that they are either based upon retribution (“If you don’t repent, you will never enter the Kingdom of God – and you will not get services now either”) or reciprocity (“If I provide this essential thing for you, you need to show up at worship and go to Bible Study for me). Unfortunately, while both of these approaches may come from a well-intentioned place, they are nowhere near as effective as a reasoning approach to service delivery, which uses facts, appeals to personal values, respects personal goals, and realizes that people are in different stages of change on a fairly regular basis.



I share these thoughts because they are the burning questions is hundreds of communities if we are serious about wanting to end homelessness. I present them to start dialogue within your community. I make no claims to be above reproach for I am considerably flawed and an extraordinary sinner. But if redemption or submission were required in order to receive service in many of the communities I travel to, I can assure you that I, too, would be homeless in your community.

Yes, I am Canadian (sorry, eh?)

When all else fails in your attempts to make change in your community towards ending homelessness or increasing affordable housing, blame my nationality. Apparently this is a thing. Summer. 2013. National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference. World-renowned expert (won’t mention names) says that I can’t possibly understand HUD requirements during a conference session because I am Canadian. Spring. 2014. Oklahoma. Implementing the SPDAT is a bad idea (and not aligned with Gospel values) because…wait for it…I am Canadian. Summer. 2014. Texas. I made an offer to help a shelter move forward with coordinated access and common assessment in that community. The Executive Director rejects the idea on FaceBook. Why? Because I am Canadian. My mother came to Canada from Scotland. My father came to Canada from the Netherlands. My older brother – born in Canada – moved to and has become an American citizen. I am first generation Canadian, with […] Read more »

The Power of a Tool

Before the conference in DC for the National Alliance to End Homelessness, I reached out to an HMIS administrator that I trust to ask him about the impact coordinated access and common assessment has had in his community. I am going to protect the identity of his community so that they are not bombarded with requests about what/when/how, but his response is overwhelming to me (and his email back to me makes up the rest of this blog): For assessments, 183 staff from 14 different agencies in [NAME OF COMMUNITY] have screened more than 1,300 individuals since August 2013 with the VI-SPDAT, 100% of which have been recorded (from day one) in our HMIS. It’s worthy of note that the vast majority of the 14 agencies using this de-centralized “no wrong door” approach are not The [COC funded] or DHS-funded either. It’s not about a funding mandate, it’s about providers […] Read more »

Gone Fishing

Literally, I have gone fishing.   This is the blog each year where I tell you there will be no blog because I am not at work. I am doing my best to practice self-care. Which I suck at.   I will tell you a bit more about what I am doing if you are interested and want to read more.   I am in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ontario. There is no cell coverage where I am . I am NOT checking email on my phone. This is very hard for me but important to do.   I am spending time with my children. This is important and precious to me. They do not see me nearly enough throughout the year, beyond which FaceTime allows – and most Saturdays.   I am with my brother and my father, and an uncle as well. These are all men […] Read more »

Time is a Thief

Look into the eyes of any person hurt, broken, suffering, homeless, marginalized. Are they wasting time? No. Time is wasting them. Time is a thief. Without precious resources to turn dreams into a vision of the future they exist in the in-between. Fight too long and lose all the time, and you lose the will to fight. Though maybe we should ask why people ever had to fight in the first place to find a shred of dignity. Each second ticking by is another indictment of our complacency in watching injustice occur before our eyes. If Necessity is the mother of all invention, then I think Sorrow is the father. Answer the call to steal back from time what is taken away from those amongst us that deserve our time and we distance ourselves from Sorrow – even if that means having a one-parent family. What does it mean to […] Read more »

The 12 Most Frequently Asked Questions of Yours Truly

I have been doing some research since January of this year, and I am going to let you in on it – the most frequent questions I get asked over email, on the phone, and one on one in my travels. I have been keeping tabs of what I get asked about. Here are the 12 most frequent questions (paraphrasing in some instances) – in order of frequency – up until the end of July…   Do you really believe homelessness can be ended?   I believe that chronic and episodic homelessness can be ended. I do not believe that we can prevent all homelessness. Some people/families will always be homeless at all times. No one can stop family breakdown, job loss, and life decisions with terrible consequences from happening. But we can make homelessness rare and of a short duration.   How do you really make money with the […] Read more »

2014 National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference: 10 Take Aways

For the 10th year in a row, I have been a speaker at the National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference on Ending Homelessness. Here are my major takeaways from this year: 1. This is Still the Best Conference on Ending Homelessness. The talent the Alliance can assemble for the conference is unparalleled and for that the Alliance deserves a major high five. The diversity of information and types of presentations appeals to a variety of learners. That said, there was a lot of youth and family content at this summer conference, which historically has been reserved for the winter conference. Is the Alliance moving towards one conference instead of two? (Well, not in the near term with the Youth and Family Conference in San Diego in early 2015) 2. Cory Booker and Michelle Obama and Jennifer Ho and Ann Oliva and Laura Zeillinger Rock No one has ever moved me […] Read more »

Going to the White House Today

Today I am going to the White House. On July 9 I got the invite. Had the White House logo on it and everything. I admit, my first thoughts were of watching the West Wing. Then I wondered when/if I will ever be invited to Canadian Parliament. Then I thought about just how AWESOME this is going to be. I was invited because of the work I have done with Community Solutions. The Community Solutions gang is pretty fantastic. They have coalesced community after community in working towards ending homelessness by focusing on the most vulnerable people first. They reached the goal of housing 100,000 people through the Campaign. They bucked the trend of excuses and the status quo. They rocked boats. They got things done. They are my kind of people. Read more »

One Part of Me Just Needs the Quiet

“One part of me wants to tell you everything One part of me just needs the quiet.” -Toad the Wet Sprocket Frightening can be the revelation that life has changed. When it isn’t as it was before. In the space between revelation and full appreciation of new discovery, I choose to exploit the silence – the awkwardness of all that is quiet and unsettled…where the breath of anticipation is a whisper not yet revealed. In the depths of this sometimes lonely place is where we come to appreciate that we are not alone. Sometimes we expect fireworks and cartwheels of gratitude, but are met with the hesitation of exuberance – the pregnant pause before the crowd realizes they can laugh or that they should clap…the beat the best comedic actors feed off of under the pressure to perform. Pinch me – is this real? I dare not speak for fear […] Read more »