Help the homeless year-round, not just during the holidays
As the holidays approach, many students will join their families at home to enjoy abundant feasts in warmth and comfort. However, there are also many people in Houston who will be without food or the comforts of a home this holiday season and the seasons to come.
A permanent place to stay and call home is essential not only to a person’s physical wellbeing by allowing the person to stay safe and warm, but also to a person’s emotional wellbeing. Homeless families and individuals have no home at which to sleep every night, in which to keep their possessions and to create stability in their lives.
To raise awareness for this troubling issue, UH’s Metropolitan Volunteer Program took part in National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week from Nov. 16 until Nov. 20 with service events, charity drives and a documentary screening, which English literature and history sophomore and MVP Ongoing Events Chair Emily Johnson said she hopes will bring the very present issue of homelessness in the Houston community to the minds of UH students.
“Through this week, we hope that students learn about the issue of homelessness and learn ways they can help,” Johnson said.
Fortunately, recent data reported by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness shows an improvement in homelessness in Houston. According to this year’s federally mandated Point-In-Time Homeless Count conducted every January by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, on the night of the count, there were 5,351 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals in the Houston area.
This number is 37 percent less than the number of counted homeless individuals in 2011 and 16 percent less than last year. The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston also reported an increase in the number of clients in permanent housing by 81 percent since 2011 and 28 percent since last year.
Project Manager at Coalition for the Homeless of Houston Greg Grier attributes this decrease in homelessness to a focus on the chronically homeless through several community housing programs, including Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing.
“We’ve been able to target chronically homeless individuals for permanent supportive housing. For instance, there’s veteran assistance called the VASH program, which is permanent housing for veterans,” Grier said. “We’ve been maximizing those and at the same time increasing the number of permanent supportive housing units that (are) funded through our Continuum of Care.”
While this recent progress is encouraging, there is still more work needed to eliminate chronic homelessness in Houston, as well as help those who may not fit the traditional definition of homelessness.
“Picture This,” a recent photo exhibit funded by Home Aid Houston, shed light on what life is like seen through the eyes of homeless youth in Houston. These young people do not always fit into the definition of homelessness, because some may have a place to stay temporarily, but they have no idea where they will be in the next month.
Grier noted a current project similar to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston’s Point-In-Time Count led by UH’s Graduate School of Social Work called Youth Count 2.0!, which aims to gather more accurate data on the prevalence and composition of the population of homeless youth in Houston.
“The Graduate School of Social Work along with other community partners are doing research around youth homelessness, people aged 24 and younger, and what that looks like because it’s a little different,” Grier said. “Youth may be in a house, but they’re precariously housed. They’re (doing) what we call ‘sofa surfing,’ like staying with friends, but don’t really have a permanent residence, among other different situations.”
Both Youth Count 2.0! and the Point-In-Time Count help to assess the current homeless population and determine what assistance and effort is needed in order to help these people out of homelessness.
There are many individuals and families on the brink of homelessness, working to make ends meet and regularly facing the decision of paying for food or paying for bills and other necessities who often choose to go hungry.
According to the Houston Food Bank’s fact sheet, the Houston Food Bank provides food assistance to 800,000 people each year, 97 percent of whom are not homeless. Rather, 60 percent report having had to choose between paying for food and paying rent or mortgage; 72 percent have had to choose between food and utilities.
There are ways in which people from the community, including students, can help in both eliminating current homelessness and preventing future homelessness. Even though college students may not have money to donate to the cause, time can be just as valuable and just as helpful.
MVP offers many service opportunities that address hunger and homelessness, including volunteering at The Beacon Day Center, the Houston Food Bank and MVP Service Night, which is a regular on-campus event where students can make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be distributed to Houston’s homeless by the local chapter of an organization called Food Not Bombs.
In addition to these opportunities, students can volunteer to participate in next year’s Point-in-Time Homeless Count on Jan. 22 to help gauge and understand homelessness in Houston, which can lead to finding solutions. Those wishing to volunteer can register on the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston’s website.
Most of all, while the spirit of giving is often alive this time of year, it is important not to let that generosity die out the rest of the year. The key to ending homelessness lies in an ongoing commitment to solve the problems faced by the homeless, so that they too can have a place to call home.
Opinion columnist Eileen Holley is an English literature senior and may be reached at [email protected].