(Extract from a paper prepared for the Public Policy Committee of Catholic Community Services)
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) has helped homelessness people for a long time. Larger SVdP Diocesan Councils, in major cities, run homeless shelters, cooling or warm-up centers, medical clinics for homeless, shelters for abused women, soup kitchen etc.
These initiatives provide essential temporary relief to individuals and families without a roof over their head. Ideally, while being sheltered, these people are able to plan and pursue long- term solutions. In reality, once individuals or families are homeless, achieving self-sufficiency becomes very hard, due to stress, lack of a restful environment and of personal space, unattended addictions or medical / psychological conditions. The emergency and the need for assistance tend to last for a long time.
Far more effective is the day-to-day work of conferences across the country directed at preventing homelessness, by assisting needy families with their rent and utilities payments, and, through that, avoiding eviction and utilities shut-off. Conferences often use the majority of their cash to assist with rental and utility payments. In spite of this, they can usually cover just part of the bills, because of the limited resources available and the large number of cases they handle. To compensate for this, together with the affected family, Vincentians make direct contact with the landlord or the utility company, seeking an extension of payment deadlines or an agreement to a payment schedule, involving a small initial advance. Realizing that SVdP is supporting the tenant, the landlord is often quite willing to comply.
When possible, conferences also refer needy families to other sources of rental help available in the community from private non-profit agencies, or from public programs, such as Section 8 housing, HUD funded vouchers for Veterans, or rental assistance programs.
Preventing homelessness is the most effective form of help. Once a family has become homeless, the obstacles encountered to get back to self-sufficiency multiply: the focus of the family becomes the daily struggle for survival, with very little time left to focus on long-term improvements.
Homelessness is not an isolated issue, but one of the consequences of poverty, together with hunger, food instability, lack of education, lack of healthcare, just to mention a few. The consequences share the same root-causes and possible solutions.
When we look at the demographics of the people we serve, not surprisingly, we see that single mothers are the neediest group. Sometimes, mothers become single because of the premature death, incarceration, or deportation of their spouse. Most often, the root-cause is the breakdown of family values in our society.
In the United States, 80.6% of single parents are mothers. Among this percentage: 1.7% of single mothers are widowed, 45% are divorced or separated, and 34% of single mothers have never been married. The number of single mothers living with children younger than 18 was 10 million in 2013, up from 3.4 million in 1970.
Statistics, in 2011 the percentage of children born outside of marriage has skyrocketed, with a six-fold increase since 1960.
The point of quoting these statistics is to emphasize the fact that the steep increase in single parenthood is one of the main drivers of poverty. It is the elephant in the room, with Homelessness being one of its consequences.
Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, together with members of the entire worldwide Vincentian Family, are increasingly working at moving people out of poverty through Systemic Change. Moving out of poverty towards self-sufficiency, while a well worth endeavor, is a long and painful process, especially for those coming from generational poverty.
That is why we should do everything possible to prevent poverty and homelessness. Prevention is always a far better alternative than subsequent relief from poverty.