The Quest to End Homelessness in America Part 9

A better Safety Net

     In many circles there is a call for strengthening the safety net so that men and women who are experiencing poverty have a safe place to land when those difficult times come.  There seems to be a movement to include more and more people that can be caught in the net and in theory lessen the damage that poverty typically inflicts.

     However, in truth the cost of keeping this safety net in place continues to escalate every year with few tangible results.  Yes the net does keep many people from hitting the solid floor, however, it also does not tend to let them go and climb back to the heights from which they have fallen.  So the net becomes more and more full and as a result the costs will continue to escalate until eventually the whole system will crash leaving many hurt, disillusioned and society in a crisis.

      A better safety net is the family as the first net.  When parents need extra care, instead of dumping them at nursing homes what if we helped families to care for their loved ones?  What if when a mother loses her husband that there is an extended family to help with childcare or offer temporary support?  For the most part this also keeps folks from getting hurt.  There is greater accountability because the funder and caregiver (the same person) is closer to the action.  They know for example if help is being squandered by drug use or wasted in other unhealthy behaviors. 

     A second level of safety net that can help when people burn the trust of the family safety net would be the church.

      With just a little bit of training the church can step in to help in those cases where relationships are strained.  If churches work together they could keep rescue missions and treatment centers running for those that seep through the family safety net.

     Even with these two safety nets that again cost the government very little there will be those who refuse to make changes to be a positive person in our communities.  This is where the government safety net could actually operate in a way that benefits society.  For those that choose crime the safety net would be jail.  For those that refuse to work then the old fashioned concept of a poor house with little in the way of comfort could be the answer.  The message to those in the poor house would be, “If you want to work we will help you get training, clothing and transportation.  When you work you get to have freedom of no curfew, extra nice things, better entertainment, etc. If you choose not to work than society needs to care for you with the least amount of expense possible.

 “The reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power. And the people who stand to gain from change have none of the power”

– Niccolò Machiavelli.

Only Together

     Only together can we hope to make a sustainable difference.  Great programs often come out of private and social and even government sectors that really can make a difference in people’s lives.  Unfortunately many of those programs are short lived due to changes in funding or change of leadership.  In one community that I was working in they had an incredible program that was designed, funded and worked through a community action organization.  It included personal mentorship and lessons on many basic life skills courses that were flexible enough to help all of their clients succeed.  I saw firsthand the success of those who completed the six month program.  They were either self reliant or in the worst case scenarios they were well on their way.  Most had started out as shelter hoppers but ended up moving into a place where they were paying at least a portion of the rent.  One young woman was even in the process of buying her own house.  Yet the program only lasted one year.  Reasons given for its elimination included a loss of funding (The community action organization received a majority of its funds from government program.) and also a new direction being brought to the organization that had changed leadership.  Yet this program was succeeding.  I have read of many others that showed much promise for impacting generations of folks living in poverty but when elections take place or when passions run cold the programs go away. 

Only together can we hope to build sustainable programs that will work.  I see five divisions of folks that if they were able to work together could make an incredible difference in the lives of people who are experiencing poverty.


Since elections happen routinely in this nation at all levels of government we should be cautious in depending on their funding of these projects.  Two additional reasons to be cautious of the government’s involvement on the funding end.  First they don’t produce anything.  The only way they get money is to take it from others. In order for them to offer any money they must take it from someone who is working.  This seems to be the current trend of our government.  “Let us tax the rich and give to the poor,” is say the modern day Robin Hoods.  This will never be sustainable since in truth most taxes will be collected from the middle class and will result in pushing them into poverty.  When most of us look at our paycheck and notice the money being taken out and then later drive past a panhandler who is flying the sign we feel angry with them.  Isn’t this what those deductions are supposed to be preventing.  No one should be living in a cardboard box while they are taking my money.  Secondly, money collected from the government tends to come with political leanings.  In studying the New Deal programs does it not strike you as strange that nearly 90% of the programs did not go to those in the most destitute poverty but instead to swing states that helped FDR get reelected?  This will always be the case when government is responsible for the funding.  So what role does the government play in the whole process? 

     First they need to cut all welfare programs slowly over the next several years.  They must be careful not to do it all at once but must start with a deliberate plan to eradicate government support.  Dropping the support too quickly could lead to riots and wide spread panic.  We must focus on a plan to slowly drop the aid over the next five years across the nation.  As long as the hand out system lives we will have poverty infecting our nation.

     Money could better be used as a portion of programs similar to the WPA and the CCC from the Great Depression era.  This would enable us to get trained workers for minimum cost and also get key infrastructure built across the nation.  With a little creativity we can have cleaner parks, streets and people welcoming us into government buildings and hospitals.  The possibilities are endless.

     Second they need to get out and focus on incentives to encourage businesses to hire more people.  The role of government is really more one of infrastructure.  Build the roads, utility systems and other pieces so that business can thrive.  Government should drop things like the minimum wage and over regulation that makes things difficult.  I remember having a conversation with a business owner who had to pay an employee just to manage the paperwork that was connected to his business.  In this modern era paperwork should be minimal but it only seems to increase.  One government based program that once worked with required the exact same form filled out for each program.  This form was over 20 pages long.  By the way because they were going through a digital transition I also had to fill out the paperwork online.  It was time consuming and a waste.

     Third government should look at all laws.  There are actually programs and systems that they must overhaul like court systems, department of corrections and other agencies that must be examined and changed.  Some of these programs actually create poverty.  It is critical that every local government take a look at laws that might be causing some to be in poverty.  In my own community there are laws that limit the number of people living in an apartment.  While for safety reasons this makes some sense, could we be keeping the extended family from being of service to each other?  Could local laws be established to better protect businesses that donate already prepared foods to local shelters and free public meal locations?  There are likely laws in your community that may be contributing to poverty and homelessness. 

     Many communities are allowing tent cities and many advocates fight for the rights of people to live on sidewalks and such.  These ideas are short sighted and actually enable men and women to continue to make poverty creating choices.  Government could step back into an ancient idea of work houses for those who find themselves homeless.  Minimum accommodations, safety focused, training focused and as much inspiration to move folks forward as possible would define the workhouses.  The goal would be getting folks to work.  For those that actually have disabilities there would be a special place for them where they can receive the medical care they need.  Most men and women have disabilities that might make some jobs nearly impossible but most can contribute regularly.

     At a federal and state level, things like raising the minimum wage, more money for housing and other ideas all sound like a solution to poverty.  That is until you get up close and check into what these men and women actually need.  I will recommend that instead of simply signing off on legislation that our government officials might need to take a closer look at these bills.   Granted, there are hundreds of issues at stake at all levels of government.  For this work I will only address these three. 

     As a student of poverty and leadership I have spent much time considering these topics.  For the person who is serious about wanting to really help the poor I challenge you to study the topic and spend time thinking through all of the possible ways to help.  That is how we, “go to him.”  We study the culture of poverty and we look for ways to help.  But if you don’t take time to examine the culture and the true situation you could actually be hurting the people you claim to love.

     Raising the minimum wage is proposed by many as a solution for poverty.  On the surface this makes sense.  Pay the people more and they won’t be poor.  Simple right?  There is much logic of this on the surface of this idea.  However, without getting too complicated consider this.  When you raise the wages of the employees the employer really has two options.  They must hire fewer people or charge more for the products or services they offer.  The raises will not simply go to the new comers and those who are currently being paid less than the most recent minimum wage but ultimately to all employees.  The reason for that is simple.  You must pay the experienced and more educated staff members more or they will leave.  It is unfair to pay good workers the same as those who are slackers.

    If the company hires fewer people; then there are more unemployed and more poor people.  If a community has fewer jobs the hope for employment can be devastating.  Look at small towns that once supported mines that are closed up or the American textile industry towns.  These towns are ghost towns and hopelessness reigns.

  However, the company may choose the second option and raise the price of items.  Ask yourself, “Where do the poor shop?”  They shop and receive services from companies that have a majority of their staff being paid minimum wage.  That will automatically raise the cost of living for the working poor as well as the non-working poor.

Regardless of which way the company goes we will all be negatively impacted.  Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of the minimum wage and let our community to start voting with our dollars?  A store might choose to pay more and charge more.  The quality of the service would be higher.  Since they are paying premium they are more likely to have premium staff.  Another store might pay less and charge less.  Some who are poor might choose to shop there simply because of price but the service might stink.

Gradual Move Away from Welfare Style Programs

We need to be careful about moving too quickly.  Every few years well meaning social workers warn their clients about changes coming that may end housing.  They prepare these men and women for the worst.  Then suddenly through some miracle of legislative action the funding is saved and again folks do not need to go look for a job.  They all breathe a sigh of relief.  This has happened enough that most believe that if the government needs money to keep these programs in place that they will simply go out and print some more.  Money is in unlimited supply.  My point is that people will not simply go to work because we announce that in five years there will be no more funding to the program.  There needs to be a ten year plan that every year a certain number of people are moved from dependent to independent lifestyles.  Funding can be switched to pay for job training instead of housing.  Those that choose not to participate can go into very restrictive public housing that will give a roof over the head but little freedom.  Freedom comes at a cost.

Court Reform

While this topic alone could make up a whole book.  (Maybe someday I will have the time to write that one.)  We must take a look at our current backlogged court system.  There has got to be a better way.  Some estimates have recidivism rates as high as 90%.  There has got to be a better way.  Consider this idea.  What if there was a way to know who was serious about life change?  I have no idea what that looks like.  But for the sake of an interesting concept let us say that we have a way to know who is playing and who really wants a new life.  Then what we could have is a court system that simply determines guilt or innocence.  No longer would we accept loop holes.  Loop holes in the system are dangerous for all of us.  The judges would then determine guilt or innocence and send them to the local prison if they are guilty.  The local prison would determine how long they need to stay.  Contrast that with our system today.  A person is found guilty and then sent to jail for a set amount of time.  There is no way to know if that person will change and if that amount of time is correct.  So when they are released we have to label them as felons and they find it difficult to get a job.  Under this new system we would somehow know that they are choosing a new life.  When they are released (if they are ever released) they are seen as ordinary citizens.  Of course if our system failed and they do go back to crime we would have learned something about this person. 

Community Courts

Another reform idea whose time has come is community court.  Here we see folks with donut crimes stand before a judge.  In a neighboring room are social workers and others who offer services of all types.  The judge would then sentence them to visit what ever agency would best keep them from committing those crimes.  If they go get those services they would no longer be in the system.  If they choose not to get the help that they say they need, they would then be sentenced to the prison system that will keep them until they have chosen a new life.

Finally, our local governments must look at local laws that keep folks in poverty.  I remember moving to Oklahoma and we could not find a three bedroom place to rent while we looked around for a home to buy.  There were plenty of two bedrooms but because we had three kids the law prohibited anyone from renting to us.  Here we were fully employed people, good citizens who were to be homeless because of a local law.  We did find a place before we had to move to the streets, but the point is the law can sometimes create a poverty situation.


In order to eliminate poverty from any community we must bring business to the table.  They are the ones with the money and more importantly the jobs.  Typically that know what they need in their employees.  When Government gets out of the way and allows business to focus on creating jobs incredible things begin to happen.  In almost every neighborhood there are businesses. What would it look like if they were able to find employees (quality employees) that lived in the same neighborhood?  How incredible would that be?  Transportation issues that often plaque those in poverty could be solved.  What if local businesses were able to offer training on basic resumes, interviewing and dressing for success?  Couldn’t that make a difference?  Think of the pool of possible future staff you could create if you were training them when you don’t have a current need.

      Business also must be aware of the environment they create.  Do your customers create trouble for those living around your business?  What can you do to make that better?  Is your business a factory that is literally making people sick?  Wouldn’t it be better to work to find solutions for that?  If your business does not make your community better than you should consider moving to a community where you can make it better, or get out of business.

     Business can also partner with non-profits with special events that can help fund the programs that are going to be helping people get out of poverty.  Things like buy five items and we will give five dollars to the Gospel Rescue Mission, can increase your business and also help out those in poverty at the same time.

The Church

The church was the original social service agency.  Early church history has the church saving babies left out to die, caring for the sick and feeding the poor widows and orphans.  I wonder what the impact could be if the church returned to those original tasks?  Beyond that I also believe that the church can be the epicenter for neighborhood time banks. (see the section on that in chapter 9)  Churches should start by caring for the widows and orphans as mandated in the Scriptures in their own church first.  But when they are all cared for reach out to help others.  If the local church lacks the skills they should invite local rescue missions or other agencies to come and provide that training.  Together we can do more.

Social Service Agencies

      Social Service Agencies have if rough.  They have to do the impossible, document everything and help people in ways that they may not actually need because that is where the funding requires it.  Hopefully, we can convince funders where the real help is needed and encourage them to find ways to decrease the amount of paperwork required.  But beyond that, social service agencies must stop competing with one another.  Just recently I had two different organizations come and request partnership on very similar projects.  They were so similar in fact that they were hoping to acquire the same piece of property for the projects.  When I brought up the competing project they insulted the founders and changed the subject.  Almost every week, I have people come to my office with some great idea on how to help those in poverty but they refuse to do so under an umbrella of another organization.  It is as if everyone wants to be the lone ranger.  Let me say this again in case you have missed it.  Poverty solving is important.  Poverty solving can be done.  Poverty solving cannot be done by any single agency, organization or person.  We can do this together.

Application Questions

1) What would it take to get business, government, social service agencies, the community and churches to develop the sense of trust that will enable to set aside personal agendas and take on this focus of ending poverty in their community?

2) Who in your community has the influence to bring together these disparate groups of people?

3) Working with a group of representatives from all of the above mentioned divisions and develop a ten year plan with markers to be reached each year.