Rebecca Hoffman We need to put an end to homelessness in Minnesota
When I became a shelter director I genuinely wanted to understand homelessness. However, I was admittedly young and naïve and therefore went through many renditions of my response to people asking me "What causes homelessness?"
For years drugs and alcohol were the culprits. Then teen pregnancy was to blame. When I settled on childhood abuse, neglect and trauma I was much closer to the truth. In the end, I realized that social policy played the most prominent role in the creation of a community in which homelessness exists.
As a society we created policies that destroyed Native American families. We removed little children from their loving homes, put them in boarding schools, and not only stripped them of all of their cultural identities, but abused them horribly throughout the tender years of their youth. (In 1870 Congress authorized an annual appropriation of $100,000 to create boarding schools and made attendance mandatory on many reservations for all Native American children ages 6 through 16.) Generations later this trauma endures. As far back as 1969 the Kennedy Report was published and declared that "the dominant policy of the federal government toward the American Indian has been one of coercive assimilation" and that the policy "has had disastrous effects on Indian children."
Our Native American neighbors are survivors of a genocide that we rarely speak of in our conversations about homelessness. It remains the proverbial elephant in the room.
Nothing could ever right a wrong of this enormity. However, we can stop pointing our fingers at the most visible results of this social policy-turned generational trauma and refocus our efforts on understanding its historical context so we can then effectively address the issue of homelessness.
Recently, with the help of White Bison, genocide survivors have begun to tell their stories in a documentary titled "The Wellbriety Movement: Journey to Forgiveness". This is an important step towards giving historical context and a human voice to our local genocide.
With this historical understanding we develop the opportunity to embrace social policies that successfully address the outcomes of generational trauma and therefore homelessness. To this end, two questions require our attention surrounding the issue of homelessness. First, how do we support the men and women who are experiencing chronic homelessness? This remains a major gap in services in our community. The New San Marco Apartments in Duluth, Minn. provide us with a highly successful model for providing housing and supportive services for adults experiencing chronic homelessness and suffering from drug and alcohol addictions. This is the logical direction for our attention to turn to. Second, how do we prevent future generations from experiencing homelessness?
The concept of preventing homelessness for future generations is much more complex. At the heart of this conversation is ending the cycle of violence and abuse of children that began with the boarding school era. To this end I propose that we not only must provide effective support services for victims of abuse but also for the perpetrators of abuse. Violence is often a symptom of inner trauma. While criminal behavior requires a response from our courts system, violence often begins to surface long before it escalates to the point of criminal misconduct. Healing the source of this violence is an important part of the equation in ending family violence. And one that we have largely ignored up until now.
The greatest impact we could collectively have on ending homelessness is creating a generation of healthy youth—young men and women who have the skills and support to end the vicious cycle of violence. It is up to us to develop a service model that responds effectively to the issue of family violence while simultaneously addressing the collective consequences of high family poverty rates, lack of affordable housing, lack of family-sustaining wage earning opportunities, and high unemployment rates that characterize our community.
Rebecca Hoffman is former executive director of the Village of Hope homeless shelter. She is an independent consultant, program director with Peacemaker Resources and adjunct professor of social work at Bemidji State University.