Searching for Strategies to Help the Homeless

There are about 2.5 million homeless people in America. One in ten will be on the streets for years, possibly decades. Renee Montagne speaks with Darren Walker, of the Rockefeller Foundation, about strategies to help the homeless.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

On MORNING EDITION this week, we're talking about chronic homelessness. Of the two and a half million homeless in America, one in 10 will be on the streets for years, possibly decades. The vast majority are individuals. They're struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, or both. One man who has learned some lessons about helping is Darren Walker. He runs domestic programs at the Rockefeller Foundation. Darren Walker says, over the years, those working with the homeless have learned what doesn't work.

DARREN WALKER: One thing that does not work is having strategies that are about just getting people off the street. The street-sweeping of homeless people that you see in many cities, in and of itself, is an insufficient response. The other thing that doesn't work, is simply giving chronically homeless people housing. If someone has a substance abuse problem, or a mental illness, just providing them with a roof over their head does not address the root causes of the problems. And what you see is, people become disruptive. And they, in fact, undermine the whole idea of integrating homeless people back into their communities.

MONTAGNE: Now, you, there at the Rockefeller Foundation, oversee a grant-making portfolio of some $30 million a year, not a small sum. Many of those grants go to organizations working to reduce homelessness and poverty. What works? And actually, if you wouldn't mind, give us an example, as well.

WALKER: We can start by talking about supportive housing. I came to New York City in the early 1980s and we had an appalling situation in this city. It was the pace and the scale and the scope of this phenomenon that really overwhelmed most of our city's social service systems and charity.

MONTAGNE: And it was the suddenness of the problem appearing, because there was also a recession.

WALKER: And, in fact, that recession helped precipitate it. But what came out of that experience was the birth of the supportive housing movement, which simply means shelter - an efficiency, a studio apartment that includes some services; substance abuse prevention; job and employment support; education support - some supportive services that recognize that people may have a pre- existing condition, when they come into shelter, that requires some support, in order for them to get back on their feet.

MONTAGNE: What I've heard called a continuum of care, mostly aimed at helping someone to change.

WALKER: Well, it's helping - I mean, what you find is that when you speak to chronically homeless people, as I have - I ran an organization in Harlem that had a supportive housing project - and what you find is that their aspirations are just like yours and mine. They want decent shelter. They want to be reunited with their families. They want to work. And so what the continuum of care scenario does is that it meets people where they are. And it allows them to transition back into the mainstream of society where they need to be in order to be productive citizens.

MONTAGNE: With so many people homeless and with the most visible - single people, mostly men with substance abuse problems or mental health problems - a lot of people just feel like it's a horrible nuisance. What do you say to those people?

WALKER: Well, in fact, you're paying for that nuisance, everything from hospital stays, ambulatory care, the criminal justice system. People who are chronically homeless and who are not housed create very, very difficult circumstances in our cities. And wouldn't it make better sense - wouldn't our sense of fairness and justice be met by providing them with a supportive housing unit?

This is not the 1980s when we were bewildered by this phenomenon. We understand it. We know what works. So the question is, do we have the will to actually implement what we know works, and what, quite frankly, doesn't cost us any more money to do?

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

WALKER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Darren Walker is director of the Working Communities Division, at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York.

Tomorrow, a housing program in Seattle for homeless alcoholics--with no strings attached, drinking is allowed.

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