There are misconceptions and stigmas associated with homelessness and individuals who experience it. Many people believe that individuals have chosen this lifestyle, that they are lazy, they are drug addicts, and that they do not take any responsibility for their situation. However, an individual who is homeless, or who has experienced it, did not choose to live on the streets. In San Francisco, individuals experiencing homelessness have lost a job, which prevents them from being able to afford local housing or a move elsewhere. These individuals are not being lazy; rather, they are struggling to find employment that will allow them to afford the high cost of living in San Francisco. Moreover, individuals may not be aware of the resources that are available to them; therefore, they struggle to find employment or social services.
Some individuals who are homeless do have a drug or alcohol problem, and there are other underlying issues such as mental illness and a loss of direction, which can contribute to a substance abuse problem — as not all of them have access to mental health services. These individuals find ways to cope with their symptoms through drugs and or alcohol, even though it is not healthy. Additionally, the severity of the mental illness and trauma experienced causes these individuals to lose hope in achieving stability and meaningful employment. Their symptoms may be impairments, which prevent them from being able to obtain employment or to live independently. Hence, it is important to provide individuals with adequate community services. So rather than pointing fingers and having a misconception, we need to understand that there are various factors that can lead individuals to experience homelessness, and it is of high importance to identify the needs of homeless individuals in order to identify proactive solutions.
We are proposing a pilot project in the City of San Francisco to end homelessness in the city with a 20-member team, each team consisting of two skilled social workers and a registered nurse. Teams will be trained and knowledgeable in mental health, trauma, substance abuse, crisis intervention and counseling. Each team will first outreach in areas where there is a high concentration of homeless individuals. It is important for the outreach team to interview and gather pertinent information, which can help discover the weaknesses of why a person is homeless. Once a relationship has been established with a team, individuals will have access to a local mobile station where services and linkage can be rendered. The outreach team will provide services needed to those who are actively wanting help and to those who desire to come out of homelessness. Additionally, a team will focus on gathering information and finding the appropriate resources needed within their community. The goal is to rehabilitate the individual and empower them through their talents, abilities, skills, motivation and education that might be viable and applicable to the pilot program. Participants can also become peer advocates that can empower and help others in the program achieve goals set. The program will provide linkage to job training and provide funding resources within and outside of the program in order to create small businesses for participants based on their goals and skills. Furthermore, it is crucial for the treatment team to follow through and maintain constant communication with the participant, in order to ensure the individual is successful.
Having someone to believe in us is so important to the psyche. As individuals, we need to feel that we matter to others. Our homeless population is no different because they have no home address or seem to be lost in society. As humans, we are all connected and affected by various obstacles within our lives, and individuals who experience homelessness are no different. Our homeless population deserves acceptance and a connection to our city because they are part of it, regardless if they are living on the streets. These individuals experience marginalization, therefore it is crucial to have outreach teams that can help these individuals feel as if they are a part of society. We want to create a support system that connects homeless individuals to the supportive services, while treating them with respect and dignity. This is not survival of the fittest or social Darwinism. We all are connected and affected by our streets that have a name, which is life. Therefore, it is not about pushing homeless individuals out of our city but trying to rehabilitate, give skills, services, and an opportunity to have a second chance of being a productive member of society.
Sofia Ramirez has a master of urban planning and is a mental health counselor for homeless adults. Velia Hermosillo has a master of science in gerontology, is a medical social worker for hospice and a previous North Beach resident in San Francisco. Both are studying in the masters of social work program at the University of Southern California, Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.