Breaking Barriers

Homeless Connect tries to bring homeless home

By Bill Dries

It seems simple. Match the homeless with homes.

Nearly 500 volunteers helped the needy with housing, welfare, legal, medical and other needs at Homeless Connect recently at the Memphis Cook Convention Center. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The problem becomes more complex once one starts trying to carry out what quickly becomes a not so simple process.

For the last year, the city’s Community Alliance for the Homeless has been forming the framework for that – a system that will begin with those who most urgently need to get off the streets and work through making that stability long term and then to heading off homelessness before it begins.

“A lot of it we’re just starting,” said Katie Kitchin, executive director of the alliance. “We’ve been in implementation phase for one year and part of the first year’s work was just understanding what has to change in order for us to make progress.”

Part of that was an analysis the alliance had done in May to take stock of the housing and how it is being used by the agencies that work with the homeless.

“Our permanent housing has more than doubled in the last few years and yet our street population has doubled,” she said. “So it tells you right there we are not using the resources the way they were intended. We have to really address access as well as the support services. Neither of which we are doing a particularly good job with now. We are certainly trying to improve that.”

At the one-year mark, the group held its second Homeless Connect. It began as an attempt to count the homeless population.

The first connect in September also brought those who wanted to come to a central location for immediate help instead of passing out cards for later referrals. There still are referrals. But the connect has had some immediate success stories.

A homeless man getting an ID made at last week’s event showed up as qualifying for $8,000 in Social Security benefits.

“It’s a perfect example of one of those people who either was intimidated by going into a Social Security office or just was not aware that they had the wrong bank account,” Kitchin said. “They could be low functioning because of disabilities or just not able to negotiate the system. This person’s life is really going to change.”

At the end of the daylong event, 40 or so people had housing who didn’t have it when they arrived.

In the week since, Kitchin said the number has grown to 120 as others complete paperwork and see counseling agencies.

The connect focused on helping the homeless and those in danger of being homeless navigate a complex legal and civil system that can make matters worse when individuals and families are in an already bad situation but not necessarily homeless by the traditional definition.

“We always think of people living under an overpass. But there’s the spectrum … to folks who have a shelter every night whether it’s the same bed or not – they have a system,” said Josh Spickler of the Shelby County Public Defenders Office who helped coordinate the Street Court that was part of the connect. “Then there’s temporary housing where they may be there for six weeks or six months. And then there’s transitional housing where they are moving toward their own rental or home ownership.”

Barriers to moving across that spectrum back to stability are court costs and fines or court actions that can mean not qualifying for transitional housing, no driver’s license and trouble getting a job.

“In this town, it’s difficult to keep a steady full-time job without a driver’s license,” Spickler said. “General Sessions Court – over half of their case volume is people who are driving without licenses and trying to either get their license or pay off old tickets and fees to get in a position to get their license. It just weighs the system down like nothing else does. … People living under an overpass are not really worried about that but as you move toward full employment and full housing that becomes a bigger issue.”

The street court handled minor, non-violent criminal matters including the ability to remove actions including arrests that remain on someone’s record even though the charges were later dismissed and “the financial debt that stays around forever after contact with the criminal justice system,” Spickler said.

“We’re spitting in the ocean basically because these court costs and fines are massive, often, for individuals. But collectively it is just a huge amount of money that is owed to the state and county,” he added. “We’re not making a big dent in that. It’s a gesture more than anything and a recognition of the hopelessness that often comes with these kind of debts that we can do something – remove one barrier. There are plenty more.”