Helping the Homeless Help Themselves

04/10/2013 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

We need to ask much more of homeless people. I know this sounds harsh, and certainly politically incorrect. But I think it's absolutely true. We need to expect more from homeless people -- for our sake and especially for theirs.

For far too long, we've brought a paternalistic attitude to the homeless. In New York City, where assistance is more generous than in the rest of the nation, we provide single men and women who become homeless with both transitional and permanent housing and financial support. But in return we ask virtually nothing of them. Not even sobriety.

It's important, of course, that we be kind, generous and caring. But after more than 25 years of working daily with mentally and physically-able single homeless men, I've come to the conclusion that we also have to balance true empathy for people in need with reasonable demands that they demonstrate effort and accountability.

We need to demand more from people who are being sustained by taxpayers. We can end the cycle of poverty and homelessness only if we increase our expectations.

To do this, we will have to offer them more meaningful opportunities. That would include job training, support services and paid transitional work -- that is, a serious effort to enable people to lift themselves from lives of extreme poverty and dependency.

Housing subsidies may help get homeless people off the streets, but by themselves, subsidies do not make people independent. Only real, full-time jobs do that.

Part of the problem, in New York and elsewhere, is that the homeless are often viewed as one large homogenous group. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Homeless families, generally single mothers and children, are in a very different circumstance from single men and women who find themselves on the streets.

It is probably not reasonable or fair to demand that a single mother with young children go to work; child care alone can cost more than an unskilled mother can earn in today's job market. Nor is it appropriate to ask homeless people with physical or mental health disabilities to work; they are our communal responsibility.

There should be no excuses for able-bodied single men and women. If they are capable of working, they should be required to do so. It is good for them: it builds self-esteem and helps them become responsible, independent adults and part of the mainstream. And it would be good for society, by lowering the cost to taxpayers of housing and feeding people who, with the proper support, could be living on their own.

These are difficult things to say. I understand that. In a city that is spending $1 billion a year on homeless people -- and in which the number of homeless keeps climbing precipitously -- the conventional wisdom is that government should always provide the safety net. But what is the true safety net, except enabling people to be as independent as possible?

The truth is that we will never be able to build ourselves out of this problem, to add enough government-subsidized housing units to shelter everyone forever. Nor should taxpayers be expected to pay forever for people who appear only cursorily unable to make it on their own.

The more than two-decade history of our nonprofit organization, The Doe Fund, shows that men who were homeless can transform their lives with the proper support and training and a paying job. They can obtain and keep real, private-sector jobs. They can become independent, drug-free and productive adults. They can restore relationships with children with whom they have lost touch.

It's not easy, and it takes time to help them develop the necessary attitudes, skills and discipline. But it is the greatest investment in people one can make.

About 700 men live in our three residential centers in Brooklyn and Manhattan at any given time. They generally stay with us for eight to twelve months, doing paid transitional work and taking a wide variety of educational training classes. They are provided the counseling and tools to give up drugs and are randomly drug tested twice a week.

About 70 percent of our participants have been incarcerated and 95 percent have histories of drug or alcohol abuse. Yet nearly 55 percent of those who enter our program, which is entirely voluntary, graduate with a job and savings that accumulate during their transitional work -- enough to get an apartment of their own. Can you imagine what our success rate would be if able homeless adults were required to go through a paid work and training program, and give up drugs?

Homeless people can succeed. It will require more programs that offer quality training and support services. It will also require a collective recognition that our expectations have been insufficient. Rather than condemn the homeless to lives on the government dole, let's demand more of them -- and ourselves.

It's wrong to ask nothing of them, to assume that most homeless people are condemned to live on the outer margins of the economy. I suspect there may well be racial dimensions to this assumption, since the vast majority of homeless men and women are African American and Latino.

The Doe Fund has a list of more than 500 businesses that are eager to hire our graduates and have found them to be highly motivated and well-trained. Even in this difficult economy, with unemployment frustratingly high, we have been able to place thousands of drug-free people in good, full-time jobs.

When able-bodied people who were once homeless go to work, it vastly improves the quality of their lives and the lives of their children and communities. We all benefit when they are helped to become productive and responsible adults. We believe in the ability of all human beings to regenerate their lives. We believe that every man and woman has true value, dignity and worth.