Public Housing Solves the Symptom - Homelessness - But Should Focus on the Problem

After a lifetime of living in and serving people in public housing, I am convinced that homelessness is merely a symptom of a much larger and deeper social problem. Simply providing a family with shelter does little to resolve the underlying problem that created the homelessness in the first place.
01/12/2016 02:18 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2017

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season has ended and the winter chill has set in. Except for those who enjoy outdoor winter sports, most of us hunker down in our cozy homes and wait for the warm spring weather. But there are thousands of homeless individuals and families for whom the winter weather is frightening. Among them are single moms with small children. Most double up with family or friends, many live in shelters, and a few unfortunate souls live out on the streets or in an old car.

Each year, we hear advocates for the homeless and concerned political leaders talk about the pressing need to provide shelter for those without a roof over their heads. Democrats and Republicans alike have joined together to support programs and funding to provide the homeless with shelter. Their intentions are honorable.

But after a lifetime of living in and serving people in public housing, I am convinced that homelessness is merely a symptom of a much larger and deeper social problem. Simply providing a family with shelter does little, and in many cases nothing, to resolve the underlying problem that created the homelessness in the first place. In fact, public housing has become a crutch that residents can lean on, stopping them from doing the hard work needed to resolve the underlying problems and move toward self-sufficiency.

I grew up living in public housing. My father was a disabled veteran and my mother was an immigrant. Public housing gave us a helping hand when we needed it the most. When I first became Executive Director of the Worcester Housing Authority, I noticed families that I had grown up with as a child still living in public housing. When I started checking, I learned that we had many families who had lived in public housing for three, four or even five generations. Something was terribly wrong.

Unfortunately, in the same way that children with hardworking parents acquire the behavior of their role models, so too children who know only public assistance follow the path shown to them. Because public housing has been set up to treat the symptom (homelessness) and ignores the root cause, the results have been a disaster.

Here is the real problem. At the Worcester Housing Authority, the majority of our adult residents have no work experience whatsoever. More than 80 percent don't have a full-time job. Many families haven't had an adult with a job in generations. Beyond that, a full 40 percent don't even have a high school or general equivalency diploma. Many struggle to speak or write in English. The majority of our adult residents don't even have a driver's license. Providing individuals with the tools needed to stand on their own is a daunting task. Without these skills, homelessness will almost certainly be the end result.

Real Help for Struggling Families

Providing help for homeless families is important. But what these families need is real help and not a handout. Consider the following objectives:

1. Recognize that homelessness is a symptom of a larger problem. Of course we should provide shelter for families who need it. But by providing shelter we often mask the underlying problem - the need to develop the skills to become fully self-sufficient.

2. Design programs that require those receiving public housing assistance to do the hard work necessary. Unless working toward self-sufficiency is a requirement of receiving the public assistance, our experience is that the vast majority of residents will not volunteer to do the hard work necessary to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty that they find themselves stuck in.

3. Help residents attain the goal of self-sufficiency. Simply telling residents that they are required to go to school or work in order to continue receiving their public housing assistance is a recipe for failure. The vast majority of residents, even those who make a sincere effort, will fail. Housing authorities need to provide the guidance and assistance necessary to go along with a resident's hard work. With that help, they will succeed.

A New Approach

In Worcester, we have more than 11,000 applicants on our various waiting lists. The numbers would be much higher, but most of our lists are always closed. Many of those on our lists are homeless and have been waiting for an apartment for years. Rather than building a few new apartments and congratulating ourselves, we have focused on helping current residents become self-sufficient and ultimately move out of public housing.

Our program, called "A Better Life," is only a few years old but the results have far exceeded our expectations. We have more than doubled the number of adults employed (35 to 75 percent) and tripled the number in school/training (16 to 52 percent). A study conducted by Boston University's School of Public Health found that 80 percent of our participants were either going to school or working.

We believe that the money that we invest in our fellow citizens should be focused on efforts to attain self-sufficiency. The easiest thing for Congress and the president to do is to add money or take money away from the budget. It takes no courage to treat the issues involved as a simple line item within the budget. Recipients of public assistance need to work hard to help lift themselves out of the poverty that has faced their family for generations. At the same time, these recipients need to be aided by equally hardworking case managers who will guide recipients along a path that, for them, has been wholly unchartered.

Think about it this way: If we built hundreds of thousands of new housing units tomorrow, those apartments would be quickly filled and soon our waiting lists would be filled with new applicants. We would be no closer to solving the homeless problem in America.

The only way to truly solve the problem is to help families become self-sufficient so that they can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and leave public housing for a better life.

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To learn more about A Better Life, visit www.worcester-housing.com or email the author at rmariano@worcester-housing.com.