10 strategic imperatives for attacking homelessness

Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York

Follow the Homeless in New York Blog here.

Homeless in New York

As a writer who spent a month living homeless in New York to research a book, I naturally acknowledge that there is an awful lot that I don’t know about being homeless, or about the administrative and bureaucratic difficulties of managing/preventing homelessness. But as somebody who has taken a special interest in homelessness, I do feel that something in the approach has to change. Of course, it is very easy to solve homelessness on paper, but a new conversation has to start somewhere and I for one would like to be a part of that conversation if I have something to contribute.

I have outlined some suggestions for strategic imperatives that in my opinion should be met when planning a city-wide initiative to beat homelessness. Miss any of these and it is my opinion that the success of the entire programme is at risk.

The ideas below are by no means a plan in and of themselves, but some suggestions for strategic imperatives. I see this as an interesting discussion point, and would like to hear from people with experience in such things about:

• improvements to the suggestions below
• identification of challenges and barriers to suggestions below
• what is missing from the list below?

USE THE HOMELESS: the homeless are tired (and distrustful) of people in suits discussing and coming up with ideas to solve or tackle homelessness. But regardless of their very valid opinions, I don’t believe any meaningful solution can exist without the homeless. The homeless simply need to be a part of the solution. They should be the voices and the faces of any significant programme. They are the only ones who have a chance of getting the larger homeless community to listen. They would bring credibility. Plus, activating the homeless in the solution would create jobs. From what I have seen, there are far too many non-homeless people getting jobs to support the homeless.

RESTORE DIGNITY: regardless of why people end up on the streets, one of the outcomes is that they will likely have had their dignity stripped from them. Without dignity it is very hard to pick yourself off the ground, let alone implement a significant change. When somebody has no dignity they end up running away from themselves, and there lies the world of mental illness, addiction and abuse. Every action that follows has to be driven by a promise to restore dignity. And once we are done with dignity there’s some work to be done rebuilding pride and hope.

SEGMENTATION: the problem with the term ‘homelessness’ is it places everybody living on the streets in the same box. To begin tackling homelessness we must start looking at it from a new angle. Instead of looking at it as the problem, we should accept that it is in fact the outcome of many other problems. Let’s identify them to get a better understanding of the cause.

CREATE TAILORED SOLUTIONS: another problem with the term ‘homelessness’ is that it misleads people as to what the problem actually is. It is not affordable housing. Affordable housing is a part of the problem for a segment of the homeless community, but so is mental illness, so are the three main addictions (drugs, drink, gambling). The solution in many cases is not a dry room with clean bed sheets. That is where the homeless should live while getting support to target the real problem. If all we have to offer is a room we are throwing good money after bad.

PRIORITISE PREVENTION: if we only target the homeless then we are doomed to always arriving too late. Once we have identified the key problems that lead to homelessness, we should work back from the street to identify those at risk. Redirect a percentage of existing homeless charities and support groups to help them before they become homeless. We simply have to stem the flow before we can make any kind of meaningful impact.

IDENTIFY THE QUICK WINS: a fishing net program dealing with whatever we scoop up, like it or not, would be slow, expensive and would yield non-measurable results that would damage the chances of continued support and funding. Identify the quick wins, target them and make them count. For example, start with the newly homeless and those who are either holding down a job or desperately trying to find one. This target group requires less rehabilitation into society. But the clock is ticking, the more time they spend on the streets the more their mental and physical health is at risk. It is cheaper to help them today than it will be down the line. Once we have learned, refined and created a best practice that is working, we can move our focus and energy down the list.

LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN: just because we are segmenting and targeting the outreach doesn’t mean that we do not help everybody who walks through our door and asks for it.

CREATE AND ACTIVATE HOMELESS AMBASSADORS: I have never seen such generosity of spirit as I did among the homeless in New York. Again and again I experienced that people with very little were perfectly willing to share with somebody who had nothing. These values would prove very useful in terms of ‘getting it done’. A support programme where those we are bringing off the street get support from those who have gone before them is essential to understanding the challenges, and to restoring dignity and pride. It would also serve as an example of success. It also has the potential to create jobs for the homeless and activate them in the solution.

CREATE JOBS: any solution towards reducing homelessness has to create jobs from within. It’s the only way to make such an initiative sustainable over time. Based on the suggestions here alone, there are plenty of jobs that could be carried out by homeless people. Identify those types of jobs and the skills required to carry them out before a draft strategy is presented. Homeless jobs have to be signed off as part of the plan. It is critical that a significant chunk of the funding for getting the job done also doubles up to cover or subsidise the cost of living for the homeless people brought into the programme. The only way to do this is to employ them where it makes sense.

CHANGE THE MEASUREMENT AND TIMELINE FOR SUCCESS: I will never understand the logic of mayoral campaigns that push a 10-year plan to defeat homelessness when at best they only have eight years on the job. As many a mayor has proven, nothing gets done in 10 years. The goals and the measurements for success need to be brought much closer, they need to be broken up into two-year targets that are attainable and motivate the project forward.


As always, these thoughts are my own and are by no means the rule. I would love to hear from people with experience around homelessness, especially about being homeless in New York. Please comment below and I will reply.

Homeless in New York

“Digging beneath the statistics and poverty, Emmins’ is a more than human portrait,” Dazed and Confused

“An absolutely fascinating book, a portrait of life on the streets of New York,” Robert Elms, the BBC

“A book that captured, without drama and urban myth, the reality of life on the streets,” Time Out

“Cutting edge reportage – Alan Emmins sees the world with such a fresh eye,” William Shaw

“Emmins’ portraits are tender and often shake his self-confidence to its core.” the Metro

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