Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2014

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Where I Stand — Linda Lera-Randle El: Homelessness’ front door

Editor's note: In August the Where I Stand column is written by guess writers. Today's columnist, Linda Lera-Randle El, is founder and executive director of "Straight from the Streets," an organization that advocates on behalf of homeless people and provides outreach services.

Recently USA Today published an article on homelessness that went beyond the usual look at street people and the despair inside homeless shelters. The article examined debt and joblessness in America and revealed that many families are either on the brink of homelessness or have just become homeless.

Among the new homeless are some lucky enough to still have a job. No longer does having a job ensure against winding up on the streets or teetering on the edge.

Welcome to what I call the "front door" of homelessness. This is the condition of living from day to day amidst a fragile, shaky economy, where job layoffs, lack of affordable housing, rising gas prices and lack of child care facilities are constant threats to having a roof over your head.

These issues are real for thousands of people. They are now affecting the lives of many people who have never before experienced life on the edge.

Right here in our own community things are pretty much the same. We see proof every day that the minimum wages paid to workers, and the amount of money that workers need in order to achieve even a minimal lifestyle, are definitely not balanced.

Seeing the faces of homeless individuals, families without residences, and homeless children in a country like America, and in a state like Nevada, does not make for a pretty picture. It can make even the toughest heart bleed.

The homeless population has long been known to have among its members those with serious psychological issues, those with serious substance-abuse issues and those who suffer from multiple issues.

Over the years in Clark County we have seen the faces of homeless people many times -- while huddled in tent cities, while sleeping on sidewalks, and while being pushed and shoved from pillar to post.

This is the part of the homeless population whose difficulties were often not addressed early on, resulting in many of them becoming chronically homeless. This is what I call the "back door" of homelessness, which is the existing condition that was caused by a lack of programs and funding years ago. If there had been programs for these homeless people early on many could have avoided their present situations.

What we do not see very often are the newly homeless and those in jeopardy of homelessness, who are struggling to hold on to their last ounce of dignity. These are the ones at the front door of homelessness, hoping desperately not to get carried over the threshold to the back door.

Among those at the front door are mothers, who, along with their children, were forced into the streets as their only escape from domestic violence. Also included are families who are doing their best to stay together when everything else in their world is falling apart.

Images are all around us to be seen -- cars doubling as houses, spare rooms given over to friends and neighbors, and empty shelves at food banks. Many times the people in these circumstances are guilty of nothing more than being poor -- in a world of comfortable people who often treat the poor like something they wipe off their feet.

In order to make a difference in the homeless issue, a more responsible, informed government must join forces with a more informed and responsible community. We all need to take a good look at where we are and why we are there and then look where we are headed. Wages paid to workers must be realistically apportioned to meet people's actual needs.

Donors to social programs must ask questions and must demand accountability for the dollars being donated. Programs receiving donations must be honest in producing outcomes. They should track how many people served are actually no longer homeless or in jeopardy of becoming homeless. It can no longer be acceptable for any agency's quarterly report to just state how many people were served. Numbers must reflect how many people were assisted out of their plight. Also, available resources must be more effectively utilized. The money and programs that are available are not always directed toward the greatest need.

Contrary to the stories that often circulate, there really aren't any people who would rather be homeless. There really aren't any whose lives have so bottomed out that they can't be helped.

It is my hope that local governments and caregivers in the Southern Nevada community will stop pointing fingers at each other over who is responsible for helping homeless people. Instead, we should pool our efforts and find solutions aimed at ending homelessness, not just temporarily sheltering it.

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