When you see an individual on the side of the road with a sign asking for money or food, what assumptions do you make about that person? They’re lazy? They’re mentally ill? They might use that money for drugs or alcohol? If any of these thoughts are familiar to you, you’re not alone. 85% of the adult public believes that substance abuse alone is a major reason for homelessness and 67% believes mental illness to be a major reason. While substance abuse and mental illness are issues many homeless individuals face, it’s likely that everyone knows individuals struggling with mental illness or substance abuse that are not and likely never will be in danger of homelessness. For this reason, let’s challenge the popular opinion that deems substance abuse and mental health issues as “reasons” for homelessness. Lacking a supportive community is what ultimately leads to homelessness.

In his book, Tell Them Who I Am which recounts the years he spent working with and living alongside women in several of the homeless shelters in the Washington D.C. area, Elliot Liebow says “people are not homeless because they are physically disabled, mentally ill, abusers of alcohol or other drugs, or unemployed…homeless people are homeless because they do not have a place to live.” It’s important to acknowledge that the issues that exist within the context of homelessness, exist beyond it as well. Liebow describes being homeless as an “unnatural way of life in which people are forced to betray their own values. It puts such extraordinary stress on those who have to endure it that they cannot always think straight or behave rationally. Importantly, the argument held that any sane person in a condition of homelessness would behave in much the same way.” Problems such as substance abuse, mental health issues, etc., are exacerbated through homelessness in large part due to the lack of support and community these people feel like they have or have access to.

Lacking a supportive community is what ultimately leads to homelessness.

If individuals are given a place to live that provides a sense of community, they are a lot less likely to re-enter homelessness. An organization outside of Austin, TX has built a 27-acre community of tiny affordable permanent housing solutions for the homeless population surrounding them. In addition to the physical infrastructure of homes, the Community First! Village provides things like an outdoor movie theater, community gardens, a market, a medical facility and other programs and facilities that are intended to build community for the inhabitants of the village. Graham believes that “the single greatest cause of homelessness is a catastrophic loss of family.” With that belief, how does he work to solve the problem? He has invited homeless individuals into this village and provided the closest thing to family, community.

The model Alan Graham followed when developing his Community First! Village or “trailer park on steroids” as he often refers to it, is not all that different from a national movement around Housing First. As a response to homelessness, Housing First is growing in popularity in many cities across the United States. The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines the Housing First initiative as “an approach to quickly and successfully connect individuals and families experiencing homelessness to permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements. Supportive services are offered to maximize housing stability and prevent returns to homelessness as opposed to addressing predetermined treatment goals prior to permanent housing entry.”

Community First! Village

The 27-acre Community First! Village in Austin, TX was created by Alan Graham who believes “the single greatest cause of homelessness is a catastrophic loss of family.”

Photo courtesy of Mobile Loaves & Fishes

One great thing about the Housing First model is that it restores humanity to homelessness. Instead of categorizing homeless individuals as mentally ill or addicted, it instead categorizes them as human. As a human, Housing First believes that having a place to live is a right. While this model has caused some controversy, it has seen great success. Implementing the Housing First model statewide, Utah has seen an enormous decrease of 91% in their homeless population. Housing First certainly does not solve all of the issues an individual living on the street may have, but it solves the issue of homelessness. Substance Abuse, mental health issues, etc., are huge problems for people regardless of if they live in a mansion in Beverly Hills or under a bridge. Those issues stretch beyond homelessness and need to be addressed. In the meantime, working to change the collective mindset based on preconceived notions of what homelessness means and realizing that all human beings deserve respect is a great place to start.

We, at Access Ventures, encourage you to challenge any assumptions you may have about the homeless population. We’re always interested in new models and are looking at ways to shift the public perception of homelessness- if you have any ideas, contact us here!

Stay up to date on all our work by subscribing to our newsletter

Share your thoughts

Mallory Sanborn

Associate, Programs