This is the second of a three-part series on Housing First.
A few months ago, you lost your job at a local business because it was downsizing. Like most Americans, you don’t even have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency expense. When rent is due, you move out and spend a couple of weeks sleeping on the couch at a friend’s apartment, until the awkwardness of imposition kicks in.
So you end up sitting in a cramped office across from a homeless shelter intake worker, as she grills you on why you became homeless and need a shelter bed. The usual demographic questions begin – age, how long have you been homeless, any illnesses, etc. etc.
Then the worker, with hair a bit frazzled and glasses sitting crooked on her nose, looks up from her clipboard, and asks, “So… have you been naughty or nice this year?”
“Excuse me?” you respond.
“Have you been naughty or nice?” she asks, as if it was a standard query.
“I don’t understand,” you say. “What does my behavior have to do with whether I can get into your program?”
The woman takes off her glasses, as if she is a little irritated. “It is very simple. We only allow nice people who have behaved well to be allowed to sleep in our shelters, and then get permanent housing. It is just standard procedures.” Her smile is definitely forced.
You feel like you are sitting on Santa’s lap when you were eight years old, and the big, white bearded man asked you if you were naughty or nice this year, with gifts from Santa pending on your answer.
In your case, today, it looks like you are going to join the ranks of thousands of people who will be sleeping under an outdoor tree the next holiday season.
Sounds a bit far-fetched, you might think. But I wonder how many of us have a similar perspective as that intake worker, when we write checks to our favorite charity?
Do I want my $100 check go toward helping some deadbeat dad who abandoned his wife and kids, so he can live worry-free on the streets? Or how about the woman who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, and would rather be high on some street substance than live a responsible sober life?
Do I want my check to be contingent on the behavior of the people I help? It is certainly tempting to check off that “naughty” box and reject their enrollment into your world of compassion.
To help those “nice” people is so much better. That sick child with his sad eyes. The poor mother who was abandoned by an abusive husband. That hardworking teen who is a part of a homeless family but earns straight A’s at school. These are the kind of people who feel deserving of our online donations.
If we build a house for a needy family, let them invest their own sweat equity into that home by pounding nails themselves. If that person living in the homeless shelter wants to stay, let him perform chores or volunteer for the agency.
At the very least, shouldn’t these people we help have good attitudes, bright smiles and hard work ethics? Shouldn’t they be submitting employment applications and going to their case managers every day? Shouldn’t they be thankful?
But if we operate like Santa Claus receiving a wish list from an impoverished person who is looking for food or housing, what do we do with the “naughty” people? Deny them food, shelter and housing?
I am certain homelessness has increased because of this approach to compassion. There are probably more “naughty” people than “nice” kicked out of programs onto the streets.
But who really has the credentials to judge who is naughty anyway? You could be a deadbeat dad, but I steal cable TV access from my neighbor. She could be a drug addict, but he cheats on his taxes. Don’t we all have our sins?
What if we just help everyone whether they are naughty or nice? Perhaps the gift of compassion should be unconditional.
“Housing First” means housing everyone — in shelters and in permanent housing — whether they are naughty or nice.
San José Spotlight columnist Joel John Roberts is the CEO of PATH, a statewide homeless services and housing development agency that provides services and housing in San José. Joel is also a Board member of Silicon Valley’s Destination: Home. His columns appear every fourth Monday of the month.