As citizens and taxpayers, our current “investment” in homelessness is huge. But it is difficult to recognize its awesome size because we are feeding, housing, and caring for so many of the homeless in so many different programs already. These measures are humane and very important. But they are emergency measures, they are not permanent solutions.
Along with food, shelter, and basic medical care, homeless people need work-related skills and jobs. As yet, we are not giving enough homeless adults and youth the necessary skills to get and keep valuable jobs in the current or future economy.
At Saffron Strand, we see first-hand the long-term negative consequences that shelter life has on the homeless. One of the worst effects is learned helplessness, when homeless people become conditioned to dependency on others. At the same time, their “soft skills” or work-related people skills atrophy. And their technical skills waste away.
In 2009, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan commented on the impact that recession has on those who have lost their jobs and how their unemployment affects the overall economy. Mr. Greenspan said, “People who are out of work for very protracted periods of time lose their skills eventually.” He said this means that “the economy loses skills.” He went on: “And remember that what makes an economy great is a combination of the capital assets of the economy and the people who run it. And if you erode the human skills that are involved there, there is a real and in one sense an irretrievable loss.”
Richmond and other West Contra Costa communities already are home to multiple generations of “welfare families,” many of whom are homeless or threatened by homeless on a periodic basis. How do we break the cycle of dependency and get people back to work in a humane and dignified way?
It is not enough to add employment opportunities to the “high-dependency mix” of donated or subsidized food, shelter, and medicine. Homeless people need the soft skills and technical skills to meet the demands of the job market, both now and in the future. We are not going to develop those competent, competitive, local workers overnight, especially among people who have been out of work for a long time.
At Saffron Strand, we recognize that every homeless person is an individual dealing with her or his own unique and challenging situation. For this reason, our approach in helping them build their work-related skills must be individual, unique, and applicable to their personal situation.
Beyond Saffron Strand, we look for enlightened leadership at the local, state, and federal levels. Such leadership supports basic human needs for the homeless – food, shelter, and essential medical care. But our leaders also should devote the same level of attention and investment in building human potential for productive work. We want the homeless to be able to help contribute to their own futures. We want leadership that puts comparable planning and money into job training and employment programs for the homeless.