At gift-giving time, think of the homeless

Aiding the homeless in the US has gone beyond merely serving up meals in soup kitchens. The task now requires a far-flung cast of givers and doers, from Christmastime volunteers to governments to companies. All are needed to end this problem.

Many of these individuals and groups reach for this goal by bringing together their different resources, aims, and commitments. A drop in homelessness in several cities has shown that cooperative and efficient partnerships can help maintain an important role for each player – if they are well coordinated. Earlier this year, Dallas reported that chronic homelessness dropped 26 percent from a year ago, and between 2002 and 2005, San Francisco had a 28 percent drop in homelessness overall.

Nationally, the number of homeless has swelled since the 1960s, which at first overwhelmed the traditional charity efforts of religious groups. Then, nonprofit organizations sprang up to advocate for and provide housing and other services to those living on the streets. Their work was then combined with new government programs, aimed mainly at finding housing.

By the late 1990s, research showed that putting the chronically homeless into permanent housing cost far less than letting the homeless cycle in and out of shelters, hospitals, and rehab centers. This finding inspired successful national and local efforts that have substantially reduced chronic homelessness.

Other successes that point to the possibility of ending homelessness have galvanized many in the business community to join in. Three Seattle companies now provide discount food to a cafe run by Plymouth Housing Group, a nonprofit that provides low-cost housing and supportive services to the homeless. Since the cafe opened two years ago, its profits have helped support Plymouth's main work, and customers learn how the group is helping the homeless.

In San Diego County, Calif., Lennar Corp., one of the country's largest homebuilders, now requires buyers of new homes to pay a one-time fee to a fund that helps support local organizations that house the homeless. All future buyers of existing Lennar homes must also contribute to the fund.

College communities are also becoming more involved. In 2004, three Raleigh, N.C., colleges linked class work to the city's 10-year plan to end homelessness. In these "service-learning" courses, some students conducted focus groups with shelter residents, while others heard community leaders, advocates, and homeless individuals speak about the problem and fresh approaches to solving it. Some student research contributed directly to the Raleigh government's strategy.

Some nonprofits have long helped the homeless by assisting them in selling newspapers that address the issues they deal with. Both homeless and formerly homeless people help write and produce the papers.

New ideas, along with a mix of private and public efforts, will be needed to reduce the number of homeless. This challenge has many causes, from mental illness to temporary job loss, requiring a multiple of talents and money sources. Cities that efficiently bring together those willing to work on the problem have discovered that homelessness is not incurable.•

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