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Faith in Values: Resolve to End Homelessness in 2013

Misha McLamb

SOURCE: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

In this photo taken Friday, March 9, 2012, homeless veteran Misha McLamb, 32, talks in her transition home in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington.

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It’s the beginning of the year, and resolutions are fresh. Exercise more. Lose weight. Spend less. Reduce stress. Gym memberships jump in January, and so do hopes that weight-loss programs and yoga classes will reshape our bodies and minds.

But New Year’s resolutions don’t come cheap. According to market research corporation Marketdata Enterprises, Americans spent $62 billion in 2011 on “health club memberships, weight-loss programs, exercise tapes, diet sodas and the like,” despite the fact that many of these products don’t work. And even though Americans spend close to $19 billion a year on gym memberships alone, four out of five of those memberships are not used regularly.

It’s clear that we’ve got a fairly large gap between resolutions and reality. Certainly, losing weight and getting fit are admirable goals, but there are cheaper ways to do it—and there are better ways to spend our money.

So here’s an idea—one that avoids false promises and fulfills another top New Year’s resolution: to help others. Let’s take some of those dollars that we pay out on fake science and so-called miracle weight-loss products and spend them on a worthwhile alternative. Let’s tackle a big problem—say, homelessness in America.

To many, homelessness is an impossible problem—too unwieldy and expensive. But ending homelessness has a price tag, just like those gizmos purporting to shed pounds and gym memberships. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, it would cost $20 billion to end homelessness. That’s less than half of what we spend each year on weight loss and self-improvement.

Seriously—ending homelessness is not an impossible task.

One of the first steps in solving any problem is to actually believe it can be solved. The second step is to break it down into manageable tasks. Third—get started. Fourth—keep at it.

The good news is that the number of people living on America’s streets has dropped by 17 percent since 2007. The number of homeless veterans has dropped by 17 percent since 2009 as well.

These decreases are partly because of the outstanding work of service providers who know that not all homeless people are the same. Some are severely disabled and need long-term housing and good medical care, but many of those who become homeless lost their job in the Great Recession of 2007–2009 or got sick and fell behind on rent or house payments. What they need is help getting back on their feet.

Local service agencies provide them with rapid “rehousing” so they don’t end up on the street, help with security deposits and a few months’ rent, and job assistance if needed. Such targeted aid is usually enough to bring folks back to a place where they’re self-sufficient and can take care of themselves.

Much of the progress that’s been made in communities is due to federal funding—including $1.5 billion in stimulus money for homeless prevention and rapid rehousing programs. That effort—along with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration—rebuts the myth that government programs do little if any good because they encourage dependency and a victim mentality in recipients. In truth, these are our fellow citizens who pay taxes and work hard but have hit a rough patch and need a temporary hand to get back on their feet.

Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, suggests ways that all of us can help. “Pay your taxes and don’t complain,” he said in an interview. The money is going to programs that work.

“Volunteer,” he added. “Make a donation. Talk to the influential people in your community to see if you’ve got a coordinated approach to homelessness. Find out if the numbers are going down. And don’t stop asking questions until you get good answers.”

Remember, Berg says, we are the richest country in the world. Nobody should have to live on the street. Not only is it morally wrong but it ends up costing us more in the long run.

Speaking of costs, I’d like to add that the $20 billion price tag for ending homelessness comes to less than half of what we spend each year on our pets.

To me it’s a no-brainer. Happy New Year.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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This is part of a regular column: Faith in Values

For more from the same column, click here