The holiday season is a time when many of us, focusing on our own family and home, are also acutely aware of those who are homeless. Many organizations run campaigns to help the homeless during the holiday season as they know the stories of individuals and families who are struggling will pull at our heartstrings. But homelessness isn’t a seasonal crisis – it affects the lives of millions of people around the country and is worthy of our attention year round.
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 3.5 million Americans are likely to experience homelessness. Of this number, the National Coalition for the Homeless reported that between 2009 and 2010 1.6 million individuals used transitional housing or shelters.[i]
Helping the homeless means more than providing temporary shelter and a warm bed for the night, or a warm meal and caring thoughts during the holidays. To alleviate homelessness, we must work on what causes it. Equal Justice Works Fellow, George Thomas is doing just that. George created his fellowship project with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. to address the causes of poverty and homelessness and find long-term solutions to overcome economic disparity in Toledo, Ohio.
To begin to tackle homelessness, George looks at the origin of his clients’ problems and thinks about the problem holistically. For example, Old South End Toledo was primarily known for jobs associated with manufacturing plants and railroads. Many of the homes in this area were built and occupied during manufacturing boom of the 20's. However, after the 2001[ii] economic decline, jobs decreased and workers began losing their homes. Subsequently this created a new form of poverty, leading people to abandon their homes in search of employment in other cities and states. What followed was homeless individuals using abandoned and dilapidated homes as shelter. The many vacant homes have been the target of fires and other forms of vandalism. George noticed the correlation between the economic disparity and amplified crime rate. “I realized the greatest challenge wouldn’t be just to focus on homelessness, but redeveloping the community,” he said.
In his first steps toward community redevelopment, George outlined a three-step approach that will empower homeowners and those looking to get off the streets. The first step proposes writing legislation in partnership with community organizations. The proposed legislation is a vacant property registry that will hold companies accountable if they cause housing to become vacant for long periods through the foreclosure process or other practices. The second step, which is coupled with the proposed legislation, is creating a community legal education program that informs renters on rental escrow that helps tenants to bring forth legal claims against landlords for poor living conditions. “This is a tool that will help combat predatory landlords and create fair housing opportunities,” George shared. Both of these approaches remove homeowners and renters from feeling defenseless to a system that pushes them out of their homes.
The third approach in his strategy is instituting a new community development corporation to foster economic development. The community development corporation could improve the neighborhood by giving homeowners grant money to improve their homes, resulting in fewer owners walking away from their property because of costly repairs.
The charge of taking on homelessness is often met with Band-Aid resolutions, but Fellows like George are working to show there are plausible ways to tackle this epidemic. “I believe that focusing in on the broader issues is going to make a long lasting difference,” George said. With these targeted steps, he hopes to see a decrease in the rate of homelessness and create a sustainable economy in Toledo.
To learn more about George and his work in Toledo as well as what other Fellows are doing to combat issues like homelessness, please view the Fellowships section of our website.