Walking to work in San Francisco, I pass by homeless people every day. They are hungry, dirty and—heartbreakingly—ignored by pretty much everyone. I often find myself wondering: “What is the best way to help them?”

As I saw it (and maybe you do to), there were three main ways to help the homeless:

  1. Give cash, straight from my wallet.
  2. Buy them a sandwich, bag of chips, or coffee.
  3. Donate to a local homeless shelter.

But which option is best? As it turns out, there’s a fourth option.

Think Long-Term

These three ideas are short-term solutions. Providing a homeless person with cash or food helps for a couple of hours. A shelter offers a place for them to sleep for a few nights. But beyond that, what can be done to create a better life for a homeless person?

I recently had the opportunity to talk with two people from Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing (DISH) here in San Francisco. They work very closely with the homeless population here, and have opened my eyes to another way to end homelessness. It involves long-term thinking and systemic changes.

The problem of homelessness comes from, quite simply, a lack of homes. This population faces a lot of challenges, often including substance abuse or mental illness, which make it difficult or impossible to live in traditional housing. Homeless shelters are short-term opportunities, as is transitional housing. And when there’s nowhere to transition a person to, we need to start thinking more long-term: we need permanent, supportive housing solutions.

What is Supportive Housing?

Supportive Housing is more than just affordable housing. DISH works with the Department of Public Health to provide housing with on-site property management, licensed clinical social workers, and case managers. These professionals deliver access to the medical and mental health resources the formerly homeless need, as well as helping them learn to live with other people (after having been isolated for so long). The goal is, quite simply, to get people healthier and provide them with a place to live—permanently.

According to DISH, most of their tenants are successful once they get in the door.  Some eventually do transition out on their own, looking for a more independent living situation, but most stay in Supportive Housing, and off the streets.

How You Can End Homelessness

Many of the improvements to homeless programs across the country have come from grassroots efforts. Here’s how you can truly help them:

  1. Get involved in your city. The main obstacle to Supportive Housing is a lack of housing. If there are abandoned buildings in your city, find out what the plan is for them. Repurposing empty buildings for supportive and affordable housing is a great goal; it often improves the value of the surrounding area, as well.
  2. Talk to your elected officials – What are they doing to end homelessness? Are they champions for affordable and supportive housing?
  3. Donate to local or national organizations working to provide supportive housing. Here are three of our favorites:

Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing (DISH)
DISH is a project through Tides Center, and works with San Francisco’s homeless population. They are dedicated to serving adults with complex health, mental health, and substance use issues through supportive housing. Their goal is to end homelessness in San Francisco.

Corporation for Supportive Housing
CSH is a national organization that helps communities create permanent housing with services to prevent and end homelessness. Their website is a great source for learning more about Supportive Housing, and their “Resources” section can help you initiate change in your area.

National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
The Law Center was created to prevent and end homelessness by serving as the legal arm of the nationwide movement. They work to change policy, which is an important part of the issue.

I’d like to thank John Mark Johnson and Lauren Hall from DISH for taking the time to talk with me about this issue.

–Sara Olsher, Marketing Manager

3 thoughts on “Help the Homeless: Think Long-Term

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