It is a frigid winter night and a bitter wind is whipping through Western New York. My children are snuggled into their warm beds. Yet, each time I hear that relentless wind buffet my home, my thoughts turn to my fellow human beings who are suffering through another night of freezing temperatures. I, and my team of community health outreach workers, know them by name. By face. And by story.
I tell myself, over and over again, that I should be out there. Delivering blankets and food. Offering transportation to people who wish to go to a local shelter. Lending an ear to a person eager to talk. And as I try to reason with myself, to understand that I can’t be everywhere at once, I come to a realization. This is exactly what I should have told my employee last month, when a homeless man she had made contact with passed away in the abandoned building where he had attempted to find shelter from the elements.
The reality is, on any given night there are 400 people living on the streets of Buffalo, with an additional 1,000 being housed at local shelters. Despite the best efforts of a tireless group of community health workers, we still face a monumental challenge to end homelessness in Buffalo. The greatest issues we face are:
The true faces of homelessness. Unfortunately, age-old stereotypes still inform the public perception of the homeless population: lazy, middle-aged men who have only themselves to blame for their deplorable situations. The reality is the homeless population also includes the educated, veterans, families and victims of domestic violence. However, the misconceptions drive policies, which produce ineffective results.
Not enough safe and affordable housing options. There is simply a lack of housing available to low-income wage earners. With a low supply of housing, demand causes prices to rise above a rate affordable by working individuals in our community. Frequently the only options remaining are dangerous environments. This is typically the situation faced by individuals suffering from untreated mental illness, or by participants of substance abuse recovery programs.
While programs exist to help the homeless and individuals with long-term disabilities, their needs often do not match the requirements of the assistance programs. If an individual does qualify for assistance, the registration process is often so lengthy that many times an applicant disappears before the application can be completed.
Lack of effective programs. Assistance programs that offer individuals with long-term disabilities a quick transition into housing are full, and have long waiting lists.
So where does that leave the lonely man seeking shelter in an abandoned building, waiting out that last year until he qualifies for Social Security? Where does that leave the young woman with a long-term disability whose diagnosis doesn’t match the criteria necessary for her to receive assistance in the housing program? It leaves the man frozen to death, and a grieving health worker to wonder what more she could have done. It leaves the woman unhoused, unsafe and costing taxpayers more than if she was safe and housed.
The reality is, it will take the effort of the entire community to end homelessness and the effects of poverty in our region. While the problems are significant, they can be solved. You can learn more about what needs to be done at wnyhomeless.org and wnycfh.org.