Ted Williams and his golden voice put a human face on the tragedy of homelessness in America this month. While the Cleveland Cavaliers and Quicken Loans help the father of nine get a fresh start, the world discovers that lifting people out of homelessness is often about more than a job and a safe shelter.
For several years, I worked with other volunteers on the streets of South Florida where thousands of youngsters live in abandoned buildings, behind trash dumpsters, in secluded parks, streets, and beaches beneath the shadows of wealth and resources unimaginable in most of the world.
I’ve since had the privilege of serving hundreds of adults who have experienced homelessness, meeting them as they strive and struggle to rebuild lives torn apart by addictions, abuse, betrayal, medical tragedies, financial collapse and more as they spiraled through every safety net to find themselves living on the streets, in cars, or closeted within temporary shelters.
Some come from wealthy families, many from poverty; some grew up religious, others lost their faith long ago if it ever existed at all. Many are incredibly bright, resourceful, and like Ted Williams, born with natural talents and much to contribute.
Almost without exception, among young and old alike, what they share in common is a profound understanding of the consequences of relationship breakdown. In fact, from my experience here in South Florida over the past decade, I have found relationship breakdown the one experience shared by nearly every person who has become homeless. Those breakdowns frequently preceded tragic, self-destructive acts, that were consequences and symptoms more often then the cause.
That understanding is key to helping people like Ted Williams and nearly three million others who will experience homelessness at some point this year. Shelter and work without skills to create and sustain healthy relationships with neighbors, family, and co-workers very often means squandering second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth chances offered by affordable housing and job opportunities.
Supportive housing has proven to be an effective formula for empowering once homeless men and women to lift themselves out of the cycle of poverty and despair. That means that in addition to safe, stable homes and job opportunities, they live in communities with zero tolerance for drug, alcohol abuse or criminal activities, receive career training, life skills, and guidance from a competent case manager able to provide ongoing mentoring and support.
The cost of supportive housing is a fraction of the price society pays for incarceration, endless welfare, and the sense of hopelessness experienced by many who have found themselves without friends, family or resources that are the foundation needed to pursue the promise and potential of their lives.
As we follow Ted Williams’ modern-day rags-to-riches tale, remembering that homelessness was a consequence of his struggles and not the cause offers hope for a lasting answer to the prayers for his life and many others.