Monday, March 30, 2009

Education is the key

George Carlin once suggested that, since we have too many golf courses and too many homeless people in the US, we could solve both problems by letting the homeless move from our city centers to one of our underused golf courses. The merits of this idea are debatable, but I give Carlin an “A” for creative thinking. A recent newspaper article in the Observer-Dispatch prompted me to reach out to Steve Darmin from Social Science Associates and ask for his insights on putting this blog post together.

Although homelessness in our region is largely invisible to many of us outside of our city centers, it is a serious, costly and growing social problem. A point-in-time census of homeless persons and families in Oneida County conducted by Social Science Associates for the Mohawk Valley Housing and Homeless Assistance Coalition on January 28, 2009 revealed that there were over 400 homeless persons on that single day. Many more are homeless at other times during the year. Over 40% of those surveyed in January reported that this was the first time they were homeless as an adult, and most homeless persons and families are re-housed within a short period of time. However, approximately one of every four homeless adults in Oneida County are “chronically” homeless, i.e. they’ve experienced more than four episodes of homelessness in the past three years or been homeless for a year or longer.

Most chronically homeless people are struggling with serious mental health, substance abuse, and other disabilities. Unlike George Carlin we’ve failed to come up with any creative ideas to make a dent in this social problem. Instead, we “manage” our chronically homeless neighbors ineffectively and at great expense using local shelters, addiction crisis treatment, emergency medical, psychiatric inpatient and other hospital care and with our police, courts, and jail. We’ve fallen short when it comes to finding and providing solutions that empower and enable them to end their homelessness and stop the drain on our publicly funded service and criminal justice systems. One third of the chronically homeless adults in Oneida County report that they used a local Emergency Department three or more times in the past year. This is the most expensive and least effective way to deliver health care services to this or any other population.

The US Interagency Council, a consortium of federal agencies, recently approached Oneida County Executive Tony Picente, Utica’s Mayor Roefaro, and Rome’s Mayor Brown and asked them to work together with other community leaders to develop a 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in Utica, Rome, and Oneida County (for more information see the Federal Interagency Council website at http://www.usich.gov/). I was asked to chair this initiative and have accepted this responsibility. Working with Steve Darmin and so many other concerned professionals on this effort, I'm confident we'll make a difference on this challenging aspect to our community.

What is the relationship between chronic homelessness and MVCC? When someone is on a path out of homelessness, education and training is a key component. Like Liz Murray, the famous "homeless to Harvard" icon, people can do it. Yet, these individuals are not likely to find their way to an open house or a career fair. We must find creative ways to reach out to the many underserved populations, whether homeless or otherwise underserved, who haven't thought of how College fits for them and create pathways that make it possible. If you have any thoughts on this, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.