To Solve Homelessness, Equip People to Rise from Poverty

The Brisben Center’s Ucan Club teaches families cooking and meal-planning skills they can take with them when they leave the shelter.

by David Cooper

There is an ongoing debate among nonprofits providing homeless shelters on the best way to address homelessness. Should they focus on finding places for people to live, regardless of what mental health or substance abuse problems they might have, or should they stress equipping them with life skills, even if it means a prolonged dependence upon the shelter?

As the staff of the Thurman Brisben Center has learned from serving the homeless of Greater Fredericksburg for 33 years — more than 7,000 individuals since 2005— homelessness is complicated. From underemployment and unemployment to physical/mental disabilities, from family breakups to poor credit histories, and from addictions to criminal justice involvement, the breadth of underlying causes is sobering.

The majority of homeless are working households and turn to shelters only as a last resort. A mere 14% — about 34 individuals locally — meet federal criteria for “chronic” (long-term) homelessness. However, they are targeted to receive the most government funding to permanently house them.

The federal, state, and local government approach to ending homelessness, known as Housing First and Rapid Rehousing, provides support for sobriety, employment, or mental health issues, but clients may choose to reject them without consequence. From our many years of experience and research, we have found that clients who are motivated to achieve success in these areas are on a path to secure and sustain a home.

Prior to COVID requiring social distancing, the Brisben Center provided shelter and hand-up services for 550 people a year. Sadly, ninety of these were children in families.

It has been our experience working with homeless individuals and families that, while the magnitude and complexity of homelessness can seem overwhelming, several things are clear.

  1. Homelessness will remain a community problem until its root causes — both at the individual and societal levels — are mitigated.  Resolving a person’s inability to hold a job or sustainably recover from substance misuse, for example, are indictors of successfully solving homelessness.
  2. Earnings are an essential indicator of housing sustainability. The ability to hold a job is also the best assessment of economic cost/benefit to the community. Livable wage income is essential for sustaining housing.
  3. A comprehensive plan for solving homelessness cannot be divorced from a plan for resolving poverty, of which homelessness is a symptom.
  4. With a measure of personal responsibility (accountability) on the part of capable clients, self-sufficiency and community wellbeing are likely.

Considering these issues and applying proven, evidence-based practices, the Brisben Center coaches and links those it serves to resources that build on their strengths and address their challenges. These include job help, health screenings, mental health counseling, AA/NA/Celebrate Recovery meetings, children’s supports, and a great deal more. With the help of case and program managers, shelter residents develop a plan for attaining not just housing, but economic self-sufficiency. Our evidence-based Mobility Mentoring® program pairs participants with well-trained coach-navigators for at least a year after they leave the shelter. Effectiveness is measured with the Bridge to Self-Sufficiency®.

All our programs, and indeed everything we do, is ultimately aimed at equipping the homeless to develop and sustain livable wage income, to rise out of poverty, so they can productively acquire and maintain safe, decent housing for years to come.

David Cooper is CEO of the Thurman Brisben Center in Fredericksburg.