American extremes: responses to homelessness in the United States

The United States is a land of extremes. Over the past decade I have travelled to Washington, New York and Boston to visit homelessness projects and the American experience has never failed to both inspire and appal. 

In 2003, supported by a grant from the London Housing Foundation, I visited New York with a group from London to investigate how not-for-profit organisations working with the City Authority were tackling homelessness. In a crowded week we ricocheted between the distressingly dreadful and the utterly uplifting. On Manhattan’s East Side we visited the 850-bed Bellevue shelter, an intake shelter for New York’s most chaotic and vulnerable people. Security guards outnumbered support staff. Under blankets, in crowded dormitories men moaned and whimpered.  Whist speaking to the manager in her office, one of those moments arrived which encapsulates an experience.  A resident, eyes caste down in embarrassment, entered to request the loan of a toilet roll. This was not a place where you could expect to retain your dignity.    

The most brutal manifestations of homelessness in the United States – rough sleeping and life within the shelter system - come with numbers which are gigantic in comparison with UK figures. The single night January 2012 street count in New York found 3,262 rough sleepers, more than six times the figure for London. The October 2012 statistics show that there were 46,146 individuals in New York shelters, including 9,725 families with children. 

Progression through the shelter system is a highly selective process with intake shelters such as Bellvue providing the first point of entry and staff from the not-for-profit organisations visiting and selecting from the intake shelters people who are appropriate for their projects, based primarily on support needs and motivation. For some the selection bar was clearly set too high, creating a desperate homeless underclass churning around the shelter system unable to take the next step on the pathway towards rehabilitation.

Yet the United States experience can be unforgettably uplifting and a visit to the Fortune Society in Harlem became for me nothing less than a moment of epiphany. The Fortune Society provides accommodation and support for offenders recently discharged from prison, many of whom had been literally bussed from the prison gates and off-loaded in central Manhattan. The accommodation was spotless and the programmes convincingly life-changing. The young salaried staff member showing us around was infectiously enthusiastic, evidently held in high regard by the residents and impressively authoritative as he gave an overview of the project. At some point he casually noted that he was not only an ex-offender himself but still a user of services at the Fortune Society.  As we delved further, it emerged that around 70% of the work-force comprised ex-offenders who had initially come to the Fortune Society as service users.

Later, after meeting the Fortune Society’s inspirational Chief Executive JoAnne Page, I squirreled away in my memory some of her phrases to contemplate further, including ‘we screen for one thing only – motivation’ in response to my scepticism about whether the organisation simply creamed off the most able to join the work-force. She talked freely about the ‘mother lode of talent’ to be found among service users and of the unquantifiable benefits derived from having colleagues who were living, breathing role models to inspire and transform new arrivals coming through the door of the Fortune Society.

On our return to London we put in place a programme to develop former service users so that they could successfully compete for and secure jobs at Thames Reach. It needed an utterly new approach to recruitment and a cultural adjustment within the organisation which, although we might have denied it, was operating on a rigid ‘us and them’ basis. Now around 67 of my colleagues, 22% of the workforce, are former service users, a transformation which has made us an immeasurably better, healthier organisation.  

This example illustrates a broader point about the approach taken by the most progressive homelessness organisations in the United States. Homelessness is, of course, about a lack of home and the shelter system graphically illustrates the miserable consequences of not having a settled base. But the American model starts from the position that a more fundamental change has to take place in the individual. There is a conviction that people should work, contribute and not rely on the ultimately demeaning and unfulfilling patchwork of subsidies and handouts that provides a considerably flimsier safety net than the current UK equivalent. Aspirations stretch higher, expectations are greater and a sense of entitlement, often in my experience the fog that bedevils candid self-reflection, virtually absent in the United States context. 

There is also a strong belief in rebuilding relationships with family and friends, reflecting a determination to return to natural support networks and avoid a lifetime of dependency on specialist support services. ‘Where do they move on to?’ I asked when visiting a drug rehabilitation project in Washington.  Mostly back to their families was the answer – where else?  

So that’s my ambivalent American experience. I feel profoundly indebted to the soaring, transformational belief in the capacity of people to change that seems part of the American psyche and I have been, at times, astonished to witness homeless Americans lost in a pitiless system from which there seems little chance of escape. Whether there is somehow a way of fusing together the best approaches from either side of the Atlantic is, as they say, the million dollar question.     


 This blog was published in Inside Housing on 12th October 2012