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Published: Monday, 9/23/2013 - Updated: 11 months ago

COMMENTARY

It’s time to get real about homelessness

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE
Keith C. Burris Keith C. Burris
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Homelessness in Toledo is exacerbated by local infighting and by a new federal rule that is well meaning but pernicious.

The next mayor will need to work with Tom Bonnington, the new executive director of the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board. Mr. Bonnington is an old Navy submariner who has been working in homelessness services for many years. He comes from Moses Lake, Wash., and he chose to come to Toledo. When I met him, a few weeks ago, he had just come from a briefing in Washington on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new policy on the homeless.

Bonnington’s way will not be easy. Here is why:

First, Toledo has a history of dysfunction in social services. It’s not unique to us. All cities suffer from this. But personality conflicts have rendered the homelessness board almost completely ineffectual.

The second problem has to do with that HUD meeting.

HUD has a goal of moving all homeless people into housing — not shelters, but permanent housing. While this is the right ultimate goal, and Bonnington himself is a proponent of the “housing first” model and has actually made it happen in Washington state, HUD, has inadvertently put a squeeze on all shelters, by redirecting monies toward “permanent” solutions.

The “housing first,” or “rapid rehousing” approach is to get people into real homes up front — you don’t wait for them to be ready, to be clean, to complete a program. A home becomes part of therapy, not a distant reward. Bonnington says it works.

But we will still need shelters like the Cherry Street Mission, La Posada, and Family House. Addressing homelessness should not be a competition. “We have the full range of society in the homeless population,” Bonnington says, “and we have to meet people where they are."

HUD’s well-meaning policy represents a triumph of abstraction over experience. Only about a fourth of those who leave most shelters are able to immediately move into homes. Yet, because of HUD’s new rapid rehousing mandate, temporary shelters nationwide are scrambling for money, including in Toledo. One very important shelter in Toledo, Bethany House, decided not to bother jumping through the governmental hoops as of July of this year.

Bethany House is a place where women who are victims of domestic violence can go to be safe. They are in a secure, secret location. They can come with their children. They come to a clean, fully furnished apartment where they are given counseling, training, and spiritual support for as long as they need it. Bethany House saves lives. Any mayor worth his, or her, salt should be committed to Bethany House.

But it is not “permanent” housing. HUD’s new guidelines encourage homeless people to minimize time in shelters and seek refuge with relatives and friends. That doesn’t work for Bethany House — it would put the lives of its clients in jeopardy. Bethany House lost $37,000 in city funding this year and next year will receive zero from the city, though it is operating in modest deficit.

As of last week, the same shelters the city is de-funding were being asked to take in Toledo’s excess homeless — to put them in sleeping bags on floors. And there are many of these folk. It is time to get real on homelessness. We desperately need the mayor to be involved.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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