What is a creative way to successfully accommodate homeless populations?
October 25, 2009 6:42 PM   Subscribe

This post inspired this question: What can be done on a community-scale to successfully accommodate our island's homeless population?

Homelessness seems like a conundrum. Here on/in Key West, for instance.

Here on Key West, an island 2miles wide by 4miles long, because of:
1) our island's perpetual, ready access to alcohol and marijuana;
2) our temperate climate, and;
3) our reputation for tolerance and acceptance (the official philosophy of the city Key West, "All people are created equal members of One Human Family"),...
we have a sizable population of people who are homeless.

Because houses for people who move here now go for $250,000-to-$10,000,000, we have a number of the homefull people who are/get upset about this.

Completely exasperating the problem is a history of island-over development which has virulently reduced the availability of open space. This lack of public and undeveloped space has led to a density crunch. We have a standing population of 25k but with visitors and tourists we regularly have a population of 40k-to70k. During the week-long Fantasy Fest celebration (think rockstar Mardi Gras), the population can go over 120k.

That's a great many people on an island that is 2miles by 4.

Right now, with the winter approaching, our homeless population increases even triples. And most everyone works around it. But here's the rub: No one knows what to do.

Our people who are homeless fall into four types:
a) leisure class (hobos, rainbow kids, "hippies," back-packers);
b) mentally ill;
c) fallen through the cracks, needing a hand;
d) outcasts (dirtbags, good-for-nothings, other names meaning users of people).

Of these, many have substance abuse problems. Key West is a natural landing spot for substance abusers. Not only are alcohol, marijuana and crack easy to come by here, Key West is literally the end of the road.

There is not enough space for camps. Moving people to another key is only so successful since the availability of goods and drugs is on Key West.

So the question of what to do to achieve some long-term success in interacting with people who either are [homeless-and-need-help] or are [homeless-and-do-not] is impacted by our natural limitations of space and resources but even more so by virtue of the fact that aside from boats there is only one way on the island or off and back to the mainland (via the 110-mile newly declared "All American Road" US 1 Overseas Highway).

Meaning, once you get to Key West, especially by foot or hitchhiking, you are here.

Consequently, people are always working on homelessness.

Now my own practice is to "adopt" individuals who are hopeful candidates who I work to transition to stability. This actually works. All I do is provide cel phones ($10 plus $10 for phone card), availability to showering and similar resources, and a reference. Working with the police department enables me to further validate individuals. Lastly, helping to secure lost documentation such as social security cards and drivers licenses can all the difference in the world.

For me, this has been the most successful approach. It is personal, it means making time, and it means practicing compassion and patience, but the results are great.

But on a larger scale, advocating such an approach is problematic. Many people who are homeless have mental health issues, ranging from mild schizophrenia to full-blown bi-polar disorders.* This can present challenges beyond most people's capability to manage.

*Horribly, such conditions are often worsened by police officers implementing a "no overnight stays in public places" policy which means constantly waking up sleeping individuals, creating senses of confusion, disorientation, and persecution, and subsequently reinforcing existing conditions: Sleep deprivation is like poison.

Which leads me to wonder, what can be done?

I mean this: With all the communities and individuals being impacted by the challenge of accommodating people who are homeless, and with all the good and compassionate minds working on the challenge, what is working? Because I want to know!

Because I want the world to be better! I want to help people who need and want help! And we are open to new ideas and new ways of thinking here on Key West!
posted by Mike Mongo to Society & Culture (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in Toronto where you can die ouside several months of the year. Some of the churches here run Out of the Cold programmes where each church in turn feeds and houses overnight as many as they can one night a week. There are homeless shelters and, in mid-winter when the shelters are full, the military has been setting up cots for a few weeks. The thing that worked the best is conversion of empty buildings into very small (think student) bachelor apts which people can rent. Welfare pays enough plus a bit for the rent, but the fact of having a roof and space of one's own seems to be the best solution. We have methadone clinics (free) for heroin addicts 18 and over as well as the usual network of AA and NA. There is also considerable outreach from the local metal hospitals (free) which can stabilize some, not all, of the mentally ill. There is a hard core of mentally ill who no one can manage, esp since the provincial govt implemented a policy about 20 years ago of just having them show up, get there meds and get out instead of housing them until they are stable. That's a disgrace and results in unnecessary deaths. What's missing is serious training/integration into the community. There are some programmes for kids and young adults, but not much else. One of the local universities has a transition year for those who have been out of school for whatever reason, and there are adult learning centres, but both imply that you're already stable. So, we're back to a roof over your head and 3 squares before much else that's good happens. Any empty buildings there that the feds want to throw tarp (?) money at? Sounds like a community organizer is needed, eh?
posted by x46 at 8:30 PM on October 25, 2009

What can be done on a community-scale to successfully accommodate our island's homeless population?

First, define your goal(s) to as many decimal places as possible, because the appropriate actions to meet each goal might be different, the same or otherwise complementary.

For example ... what does accommodate mean to you in this context?

1) Are you hoping to provide short-term help (e.g. emergency health care, a sandwich and a shower)?
2) Are you hoping to mainstream people (e.g. medical treatment, education, training, a job, affordable living)?
3) Are you hoping to prevent more hobos (as you termed them) from coming to Key West in the first place?

All three have different possible answers, and possible answers to Nos. 1 and 2 might actually be working at cross-purposes with No. 3 (i.e. raising the "We Help Hobos" flag encourages hobos to travel south).

Figure out what you really want to have happen, then go after it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:17 PM on October 25, 2009

It seems like the best way for them to get treatment is for them to not show up there in the first place - They're probably coming from places all over the country that already have an infrastructure to deal with these problems.

Even if you wanted to do something down there, there's no place to put it.

Maybe doing something to curb the drug trade and/or increase the cost of booze? I realize they're probably both politically nonstarters, but...
posted by Orb2069 at 6:27 AM on October 26, 2009

Response by poster: what does accommodate mean to you in this context?

Our city's philosophy—by proclamation, no less—is "All people are created equal members of One Human Family". What I am looking for is a way to integrate and harmonize.

The portion of the population which is homeless merits a place. Here in Key West, our heritage is built upon taking in stragglers and wanderers. That's us, it's who we are.

The challenge is over the years our demographic and sociological landscape has changed. For one, while there is still only "one way in, one way out", that way is a very well-traveled four-lane highway. Sure, it's 110-miles that takes about four hours to traverse but it's a much more refined experience than it was just 20 years ago. For another, there are loads of tourists here now pretty much year round. Lastly, we have had an influx of the wealthy.

From a cultural standpoint, these all translate to challenges. But whereas the above challenges have brought opportunities and infrastructure with their inherent problems, our challenge with providing for a (growing) population of people who are homeless has yet to reveal answers much less rewards.

Helping others is its own reward. This is true. What I am looking for are suggestions which would lead to possible novel or inspired approachs to successfully managing the resource needs and allocations—not to mention shelter/housing and such—for our homeless citizens.
posted by Mike Mongo at 7:45 AM on October 27, 2009

Best answer: I started wondering lately if a capsule hotel style approach to housing might make sense as a partial response to homelessness. I hear (although I am not yet involved with homelessness mediation) that some of the concerns about homeless shelters are a) lack of privacy b) lack of storage for possessions c) in many, you get kicked out during the day. There are probably others.

Setting up or building a traditional apartment buildings is expensive. Perhaps capsules, which provide some ability for privacy and feeling of place, without much of the overhead of a traditional apartment building, would work in some sort of capacity. Then you have shared bath, kitchen, and other public spaces. Charge some amount for the ability to stay there.

Is there any realistic way to keep homeless people out of any location? It's not like you can ask for proof of dwelling or issue visitor passes. Many cities in California have similar problems.

Finding a way to help homeless people who want to exit that way of life is a noble goal. To my mind, it's not enough to just provide the barest of necessities to people and allow them to remain homeless.

It's expensive and time consuming and there are some people that are just not equipped to handle life on their own.

In terms of the demographics of the city changing, it sounds like there needs to be more community discussion around topics like this. The city may have been founded on certain principles, but if the majority don't agree with them, that's a problem.

I've never been to Key West and hope to visit some day.

Good luck.
posted by reddot at 8:46 AM on October 27, 2009

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