Roberts: Why is it so difficult to help people who are homeless?
Homeless tents line up near a train crossing at Autumn Parkway near the Guadalupe River. Photo by Kyle Martin.

Fifteen years ago, I was working with a newly hired PATH employee who had just graduated from our local college. We were tasked to persuade a neighborhood and its political leaders that a homeless shelter we wanted to build would help, not hurt, the community.

After countless, and frankly, excruciating community meetings and difficult political office visits, my young colleague came up to me, nearly in tears and asked, “Why is our work so hard?” She had assumed people would eagerly want to help get the homeless off the streets.

I answered with a rather textbook response: not everyone agrees how we should help people get off the streets; there are stereotypes of homelessness that, frankly, scare some people; and, many people see a homeless facility as a threat to their quality of life.

Looking back years later, I don’t believe my response comforted her, and certainly did not inspire her. Perhaps I was feeling just as beaten up as she.

After decades of running our homeless and housing agency, I’ve worked with many colleagues, some brand new in our field, and others with years of experience, who have asked me this same question, but in different ways.

“Why doesn’t that councilwoman understand how important it is to build a supportive housing development in her district?”

“Why does that foundation make local homeless agencies compete against each other for money? And, then they say that we don’t get along with each other.”

“Why do we have to hire a full-time employee just to process reports for a government funding agency? That money could be used for more on-the-ground outreach.”

“Why does that high net worth donor insist on donating money to re-upholster an old couch in our residential lounge instead of donating that money to help us fund a meal or bed at our shelters?”

What they are really saying is: why is it so difficult to help people who are homeless?

Although that young colleague of mine moved onto other life endeavors, if I could answer her question again, here is what I would tell her:

  • Hold your head up high… you are doing the work of the divine. (In my faith tradition: you are doing God’s work.) It just doesn’t matter if other people want to place roadblocks in front of us. We have a higher calling.
  • Don’t let others “demonize” people who are homeless… the people that we help are not predators, drug addicts, crazy, lazy or deadbeats. They are people struggling with the difficulties of life. Homelessness is a failure of society, not the failure of people on the streets. Our work is to help reduce and eliminate their personal barriers, even if other people are placing barriers in front of us.
  • Focus on the mission… our mission is to help a person who is homeless return home. In our field, there is no greater calling than being on the frontlines of building homes and helping people access their new homes. Yes, people have different roles in the work of ending homelessness — policymakers, funders, leadership at nonprofits — but in my opinion, the most important roles are held by the workers on the frontlines who do the grunt work of ending homelessness for a person.

Sometimes, those of us working on the issue get frustrated, tired, perhaps even burned out. But I know people, and our society, need us more than ever. That inspires me.

And, by the way… we were able to build that homeless shelter fifteen years ago. Throughout the years it helped transition thousands of people from the streets into their own homes. Difficult work makes a difference.

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.

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