A Roof Over One’s Head

Note: The Schooldog has been away from his desk for a couple of months tending to some medical issues.

Summary: Before a student’s family sinks into the quagmire that is homelessness, may his or her family have luck to cross paths with a “diversion” worker.

One month into my recovery, during a listless scan of the Seattle Times, an item about local big timers Pearl Jam caught my eye, not for their music, but for their public role in raising money to ease homelessness.

What further heightened my interest was news that a healthy portion of the money raised would provide one time cash infusions to those teetering on homelessness, stipends designed to pay a first month’s rent, or to fix a car needed to get to work – to address whatever financial deficit that might otherwise relegate a once housed person into the homeless ranks.house-768707_1280

Once homeless, the status is more likely to become chronic; a helping financial hand back from the ledge is increasingly used in locales as diverse as southeastern Connecticut, Montgomery County (Maryland), and Tacoma, Washington, and Seattle to a less committed extent.

The item caught my eye because of its similarity to an effort by Amarillo College in Amarillo, Texas, to provide short term cash infusions for their students in danger of dropping out of school due to financial pressures not dissimilar to those the Pearl Jam effort is designed to address. And for that matter both are similar to the strategic help and occasional fiscal transfusions to recent immigrants from a private angel, whom I’ve also profiled in recent months.

An estimated 3% of American students K-12 are homeless and thereby embattled academically, while conservatively about a third of school aged kids live in low income families, a group from which newly homeless would most likely descend. With much of the struggle for improved school performance bound up in the persistence of poverty, and in this instance homelessness, any innovation that demonstrates promise in pulling families back from the precipice is of interest to the schoolhouse.

The Pearl Jam initiative is part of a more comprehensive effort termed “diversion” — that is, diversion from homelessness. Housing diversion workers are in effect auxiliary problem solvers with access to a varied arsenal of resources, such as food, employment, and apartment availability, as well as short term financial assistance for such exigencies as a derelict payment of a pivotal bill.

Part of their role is to form a bond with the distressed client, with attention to their unique circumstances. In some cases, the incipient homelessness can be out maneuvered by a re-invigoration of the client’s own resources. His or her own problem solving ability may have fallen victim to panic as the walls seemed to cave in.

The target population is not the hard core already homeless, living on the street, but those teetering on becoming so, whose sense of normalcy is still relatively intact, and who are motivated to do what needs to be done in order to sustain a relatively housed and financially viable status. In other words, keep the ranks of the homeless from swelling further.

The descent into homelessness is a proverbial tipping point from one set of social circumstances – housed – into a social web that presents a quantum difference, that of the street or the shelter. Diversion interventions serve as a bulwark against a descent into an environment in which a homeless life can cascade out of normalcy and control, and from which the navigation back into housed circumstances is complex and difficult.

Does the diversion template work? While rigorous academic studies are yet to be completed, the early returns have encouraged various locales to commit more resources. For example, in the Mystic area of southeastern Connecticut, 64% of the families encountered by diversion case workers maintained some kind of private housing, a figure in line with reports out of Tacoma and Maryland. In some cases, conflict was resolved with a family member, or a friend was found who could provide a room, or a back month of rent was paid – the solutions have turned out to be as varied as the clientele, and do not always involve money. In fact, the public investment costs out significantly less than that of shelter and later re-housing.

Moreover, where there is homelessness, tent encampments that sprout adjacent to neighborhoods — with their confluence of drug addiction and mental health problems — pose social costs to the community that defy quantification, and which are alleviated by each successful diversion.

Diversion appears to be another in that class of intervention that proves cheaper the earlier in a deteriorating sequence a remediation occurs. Universal quality preschool is one other early intervention that comes to mind, which forestalls failure in school for which the later social cost is more extreme.

Our conservative friends worry with sometimes false masks that programs such as housing diversion risk the spiritual enervation of those on the public “dole,” that somehow the vigor of the populace on the lower end of fate is savaged by being provided for, rather than steeling themselves to their own independently arrived at solutions. Well, this formulation of poverty from our conservative friends is over simplistic and too little familiar with the struggles of low income folk, who are just as accurately characterized as trapped in circumstances, looking for a break and a chance to better themselves and in particular their children, who happen to be our students.

By contrast, I am open to the views of a few conservative thinkers who have turned earnest attention to the plight of the poor and have proposed a guaranteed income stipend, as not only addressing the need for financial assistance, but also as an efficient means of doing so by side-stepping all the repetitive and expensive levels of bureaucracy that make financial, health, and other micro decisions in the lives of the low income folk.

Meanwhile, diversion is a less cataclysmic, cheaper and more politically feasible service option that might readily be incorporated into schoolhouse structure, much as medical and mental health centers have creaked toward normalcy, particularly in urban schools that disproportionately educate lower income kids. It may be at the dreaming stage, but contemplate a school in which families feel so integrated as to trust a diversion worker with their fears of incipient homelessness.

Students in such a school may find themselves tipped into academic prosperity.

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