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Addressing homelessness: Moving from fear to solutions [opinion]

As the twin crises of housing shortages and growing homelessness unfolds across our nation, we see the same issues playing out on a local level. While the Supreme Court is deliberating the Johnson v. Grant’s Pass case, the National Park Service and District of Columbia officials cleared more than 60 people from the Foggy Bottom encampment in our nation’s capital.

In this region, while the case of Better Days Ahead v. Pottstown sits in appeal, 56 individuals have been forced out of four encampments in Pottstown over the past six months. The borough has become a microcosm of the issues at hand; the increase of a polarized and politicized response, the challenge of aligning a community towards a solution and the efforts of some to lead a compassionate response that improves the community as a whole.

Recently, Emma Hertz of Healthspark Foundation wrote about the often-asked question, “How do we solve homelessness?” A related, perhaps more immediate question is, “Why are we not doing some of the things that other communities are already implementing with good success?”

It’s not a rhetorical question; there are reasons why we are stuck. The biggest is that much of the public discourse begins with complaint and is driven by fear. While fear often encompasses understandable concern, it is a terrible strategist; we have to collectively act on our fear if we are to find our way through it toward the solutions others have landed on.

Here are three things we can do to move from fear to solutions:

Get the facts from the people who are most proximate to the issues. In Pottstown, the most visible encampment is known as tent city. Only about 20% of the people living outside in Pottstown reside there. Over the past five years in Pottstown, there has been an increase from 25 to 119 individuals living outside — a 375% increase that seems staggering until you put it next to Montgomery County’s total increase in the same period from 102 to 451, close to 350%.

In Pottstown, 85% of the people living outside became homeless from a Pottstown address. They are not from Kensington, regardless of social media speculation. The county’s eviction rate is in the top 10 across the state. Pottstown’s eviction rate is 40% higher than the county average. People are continuing to become homeless in the communities where they were housed.

People live outside because they can’t find places to live that they can afford. When they live outside, they have to hide to survive. When you combine a marked increase in the number of homeless people with drastically fewer places to hide, there will be more visible homelessness. And all the issues that drive the complaints improve when people get inside, regardless of your beliefs about homelessness.

See the good that is already happening. Now in its fourth year, the Montco Street Medicine Program has seen more than 400 patients in Pottstown. Half of them receive ongoing primary care from the local clinic.

Pottstown Beacon of Hope has finished its fourth winter warming center season, serving 152 residents who found themselves without a home during the winter. Half of them were able to use that opportunity as a steppingstone to more stability. Beacon of Hope is working acquire land that will become a year-round shelter for local unhoused residents.

Back at tent city, a growing volunteer movement has been helping residents there clean up by providing dumpsters and manpower to help fill them. They are listening to the people there and addressing everyday issues that make surviving outside so hard.

The county’s Street Outreach Program, run by Access Services, is present in Pottstown multiple times each week, collaborating with those living outside and the people offering meaningful help. Outreach workers partnered with 56 homeless individuals to move from locations where an encampment was impacting the community and supported each person to connect with community resources through partnerships with formal services and informal supports.

Find your place and join. Homelessness affects the entire community, not just particular cities or towns; each local community is impacted in its own way. There is not a single entity or service that can fix this. It takes each of us and all of us as a whole community to move to solutions.

So, join in. Educate yourself on what else is happening. Talk to co-workers, people in your houses of worship and in civic groups, go to municipal meetings and to elected officials and say that you support efforts to help people get inside. Find a soup kitchen, a food pantry or an outreach effort and volunteer.

Decide to move from fear to solution and help others do the same.

Mark Boorse is director of program development at Access Services. He is part of the organization’s Street Outreach Program and a founding participant in the Montco Street Medicine Program.

Source: Berkshire mont

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