THE BLOG
04/01/2013 02:50 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Homeless Agencies Should Be Called Home Centers

I know that suggesting the term "home center" sounds like a Madison Avenue marketing idea hatched by some out-of-touch communications intern. A "home center" reminds me of a big-box retail home store, like Home Depot or Ikea. These retail centers, however, have no association with homelessness other than places where people might panhandle in front of their stores.

The problem today is that "homelessness" and "homeless", as words or images, connotate such negative feelings for most people. Attend a local neighborhood meeting, like I have done hundreds of times, to discuss anything to do with homelessness and inevitably fear, hatred and bigotry seep into the conversation.

"Those homeless people attract crime!" some say. "They are sex offenders that will prey on our community."

There is not much sense of hope in the words homelessness or homeless. Yet, for decades, a community-based organization (CBO) with a mission to help people who are homeless had always been described as a "homeless agency" or a "homeless provider."

Perhaps we should re-name these CBOs so that hope is instilled in their very definition. Especially since in some circles, homeless agencies were sometimes considered the "problem" not the "solution" to homelessness.

When Housing First was hatched -- a model of addressing homelessness through providing permanent housing with support services (think apartments with case managers) -- homeless agencies and providers became the scapegoat for why homelessness wasn't resolved.

Homeless agencies worked for decades to help feed, clothe, and shelter people living on the streets. Yet, homelessness continued to increase, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. People saw homeless agencies as simply "managing" homelessness, not "ending" it.

Forget about the bad public policy that discharged thousands of people out of jails, healthcare, and welfare systems directly onto the streets. Forget about wrong political priorities that directed funding away from social services.

Instead, blame the homeless agency that was simply providing a compassionate hand to hurting people.

But homeless agencies are changing, whether by choice or by financial survival. So shelters are becoming rapid re-housing programs. Transitional housing is being converted to permanent supportive housing, and social services are geared toward supporting housed residents.

In the agency I lead, our outcomes are based on how many people we placed into apartments, not how many mouths are fed or how many nights people sleep in a shelter bed.

Homeless agencies across the country are becoming programs that are prioritizing permanent housing. This evolution is a positive step on the path to ending homelessness in this country.

In our system to address homelessness, homeless agencies are becoming real estate agents, apartment managers, housing placement assistants, furniture movers, and housing counselors.

Larger agencies are becoming the Home Depot within the system of ending homelessness. Homeless agencies are evolving into Home Centers.

For homeless agencies, "home" is certainly a more hopeful and more accurate description than "homeless".