During the 1980s, those of us who served as pastors of urban churches witnessed a rapidly growing number of people living on the streets. At the same time, it became harder to help people get help. Many of us, in our frustration, began advocating for more shelters to help get people off of the street.
In Philadelphia where I was a pastor at the time, whenever there were hearings or meetings, Roy Leeds always seemed to show up. Roy was a homeless veteran who lived in shelters.
Whenever he testified at a city council hearing or spoke at a meeting, Roy had one message. It was a message none of us wanted to hear at the time — not those of us advocating for shelter beds and not the city officials we were trying to persuade. Roy’s persistent and insistent message was: “A cot is not a home.” I heard him say it a hundred times.
Roy was trying to help us understand that shelters are not an adequate solution to homelessness.
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest Homelessness Assessment Report, there are 6,539 homeless people living in the District. Most are living in temporary overnight shelters. More than 2,000 are chronically homeless, meaning they have been living in shelters or on the street for more than a year or intermittently for the past three years or more.
Why is a cot in a shelter not good enough? The 100,000 Homes Campaign, which has surveyed more than 23,000 homeless people in various cities, found that more than 40 percent suffer from a life-threatening health condition and 45 percent experience mental illness.
People do not get healthier while living on cots in emergency shelters. Life is too unstable. To get better, people need stability. They need a home, no matter how small, with a lock on the door.
One of the best solutions to homelessness is permanent supportive housing, which makes supportive services available and easy to access. National studies have shown that the overwhelming majority of homeless people who move into permanent supportive housing never return to homelessness.
A year and a half ago, Washington celebrated the establishment of its 1,000th unit of permanent supportive housing. Since then, according to reports, the number of available units of permanent supportive housing has begun to decline.
As a city, we need to renew our commitment to permanent supportive housing. As Roy Leeds tried to tell us years ago: A cot is not a home.
Rev. Dean Snyder is Senior Pastor at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.
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