Why It’s Hard to House the Homeless
When temperatures begin to fall in Massachusetts, donations to help the homeless begin to rise. Whether financial or in-kind — a category that includes warm socks and winter coats — these donations help the estimated 20,000 men, women and children across the state who experience homelessness on a given night avoid the potentially fatal effects of frigid winter weather.
Curt Smith applauds such charitable giving, but he wishes donors would think about people who experience homelessness throughout the year, and not just during the winter holidays. The assistant professor of Sociology also wants people to understand that homelessness isn’t indicative of indolence, but the result of systemic social and economic inequities. “Too many people believe in the stereotype that people who experience homelessness are lazy, that if they just put in a little more effort, they could ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps,’” Smith explains. “But the reality is, many individuals experiencing homelessness leave shelters during the day to work.”
What’s more, he says, in an economy characterized by chronically low wages and high housing costs, more Americans are at risk of experiencing homelessness than ever before. In 2019, a widely cited report from brokerage firm Charles Schwab found that 59% of Americans were just a paycheck away from homelessness — a reality compounded by more recent economic losses caused by COVID. According to 2020 U.S. Census results, 37.2 million Americans are currently living in poverty (defined as household of four with an income of $27,750 or less).
Smith acknowledges that federal stimulus assistance via the CARES Act and other legislation helped keep millions of Americans in their homes during the pandemic. Indeed, as he explains in his new book, “Homelessness and Housing Advocacy: The Role of Red-Tape Warriors,” more than $1 billion in CARES funding specifically earmarked for the homeless currently remains unused. But as Smith sees it, the true obstacle to ending homelessness isn’t a lack of funding, but a surfeit of policy barriers that prevent social service workers from helping those in need. Simply put, he says, “People do not fit the rules of housing aid.”
“Convoluted with Bureaucracy”
Smith is uniquely qualified to offer insights about this issue: From 2002 to 2007, he was a street outreach worker for people experiencing homelessness in Cincinnati, Ohio and Phoenix, Ariz. In this role, Smith met daily with unsheltered individuals — those living on the streets, in their cars, in public parks and abandoned buildings — helping them gain access to temporary housing and providing other resources, such as food, clothing and health care referrals. As a graduate student and professor, he’s also studied homelessness in El Paso, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Boston.
Over time, he says, he came to two fundamental realizations: First, that “homeless populations are much more diverse than people think,” and second, that the U.S. social service system is “convoluted with bureaucracy” as a result of “confusing, muddled and at times contradictory policies.” The current housing system, Smith explains, prioritizes clients that fit within specific categories, including military veterans, families, and individuals dealing with mental illness or drug use. To qualify for benefits, those experiencing homelessness must unequivocally meet these criteria and have appropriate documentation. If they don’t, their likelihood of receiving assistance becomes exponentially harder. “People who fit these categories are fast-tracked and typically get housed within a year,” he notes. “Those who don’t wait an average of seven years to secure housing.”
Smith’s firsthand experiences left him feeling frustrated that “policies meant to help the poor often constrain social service workers by inhibiting who can be helped and how,” he says. Yet, even as he acknowledges the system’s shortcomings, he understands that attempts to overhaul existing federal policies are always arduous, and often fruitless, endeavors. That’s why, in his book, he focuses on the social service workers who have developed successful strategies for navigating the “complex and shifting matrix of service eligibility criteria” in order to get their clients the support they so desperately need.
Celebrating the Success of “Red-Tape Warriors”
For Smith, social service workers are the “unsung heroes in the fight against homelessness.” Despite being overworked and underpaid, he says, these front-line workers are “tenacious and creative in the face of adversity,” developing shortcuts and workarounds to circumvent policy barriers. “Trying to navigate access into housing services can seem like an impossible process,” he explains, especially for those recently displaced; successful social service workers thus become “red-tape warriors” capable of bridging the gap between bureaucratically managed resources and their clients’ immediate needs.
To do this, Smith says, social service workers employ “assertive advocacy,” which he defines as “going beyond the formal standards of their jobs in order to improve the outcomes of service aid.” One example of this is investing considerable time and effort to establish personal connections with clients. Doing so not only builds trust, he explains, but gives service providers greater insight into each client’s personal circumstances.
Smith shares countless examples of this in his book, including his own experiences with “Tom,” a middle-aged man dealing with paranoid schizophrenia who had been sleeping on the streets for more than a decade. As previous attempts to interest Tom in sheltered living had proven unsuccessful, Smith reasoned that a slow and cautious approach would be best: “Since Tom rarely talked to others, I knew that our interactions had to be on his own terms.” Initially, Smith simply acknowledged Tom with a smile and cheerful “hello” each week but kept his physical distance; after several months, Tom felt comfortable approaching Smith and engaging in conversations. About a year later, the two had built up enough rapport that Smith was able to persuade Tom to apply for housing services. “Building relationships on the streets can entail substantial patience,” Smith admits, but cultivating trusting relationships with clients is “crucial” to administering assistance.
Red-tape warriors also use the personal details they learn about their clients to take advantage of bureaucratic technicalities and expedite aid. Smith calls this process “fitting stories,” which he explains as “fitting together pieces of their clients’ tangential reports of their busy and often-chaotic lives into clearer stories that sell well with agency gatekeepers.” In other words, social service workers find creative ways to ensure a client’s personal experiences fulfill official eligibility requirements.
Smith acknowledges that, in some instances, red-tape warriors may construe clients’ stories in a way that “fits the spirit of the law at the letter’s expense.” However, he believes granting social service workers this kind of discretionary power is essential for achieving the goal of housing the homeless as quickly and easily as possible. After all, he emphasizes, these committed and compassionate workers “aren’t cutting corners to make it easier for themselves, but to help their deserving clients.”
In the absence of official changes to remove bureaucratic obstacles, Smith says, politicians and policymakers would do well to recognize the “skill and commitment of red-tape warriors” by making it easier for them to make decisions that optimize their clients’ success. He’s aware that empowering social service workers to use their discretion is just one part of the solution for ending homelessness — the federal government also needs to raise the minimum wage and increase the availability of housing vouchers, he says — but he believes supporting the efforts of red-tape warriors will positively impact surrounding communities.
As evidence, Smith cites a groundbreaking study of homelessness in Orange County, California, which found that $42 million could be saved annually in health care, law enforcement and other expenses simply by housing anyone experiencing homelessness, rather than prioritizing specific demographic groups. The study’s findings make clear, he says, that “removing bureaucratic obstacles incorporated into current housing policies would improve the work of social service workers, the standard of living for many, and public health in general.”