We’re In Trouble When CSM Gets It Wrong

My deep respect for journalistic standards of the Christian Science Monitor has been jarred.

Way back in 2006, June 15 to be exact, I participated in my first ever editorial board meeting, where an “expert” sits with leaders of a publication to hash about deeper insights on a topic they want to better cover. In this case, it was the esteemed Christian Science Monitor, considered one of the top news publications in the world.

The topic: families and youth experiencing homelessness.

At the time I was just finishing filming my HEAR US coast to coast cross-country interviews of 75 children and youth in small towns, rural areas, resort communities across 13 states. These articulate, astute kids had an unprecedented opportunity to talk about their homelessness and what school meant to them.

One of the CSM correspondents I had met back in 1998, Gail Russell Chaddock, arranged this meeting, a huge honor.

My Own Four Walls (2007) YouTube (20 min)

My dream opportunity to clarify common confusions about homelessness — specifically families and youth. I shared my observations from my interviews that comprised my first and best award-winning documentary project, My Own Four Walls. As I left, Marilyn Gardner, a CSM columnist (that title doesn’t do her justice), proclaimed, “You’re the nation’s leading homelessness advocate.” I was more than humbled.

Fast forward to yesterday, as this “leading homelessness advocate” was sitting in Panera, chomping on salad, catching up on email. I clicked on the CSM feed featuring a rare editorial on homelessness, a look at Jeff Bezos and his recent commitment to toss some of his billions to homeless families. Oh yay, I thought. But then my joy fizzled.

To start with, the photo they used was an elderly man pushing a walker, a shopping cart and tent in the foreground, Seattle skyline in the background. An article talking about families experiencing homelessness and you use the stereotypical grizzled homeless guy pic. No.

Millions of kids and parents, and unaccompanied youth are homeless. Photo by Diane Nilan

It got worse. And they did what so many media sources do. They jumped from “young families” to the vague and misleading term, “the homeless,” in an awkward stumble that muddled references between families (Bezos’ intended focus) and “the homeless,” as in the rest of the homeless population.

First, let’s not use the term “the homeless.” It’s demeaning, confusing (homeless dog? cat? man? woman? child? baby? youth?), and it plays into our ever-blurring realities that diminish economic injustices.

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, is shopping for solutions to homelessness. Last week, the founder of Amazon announced a special fund of around $1 billion to reward nonprofits doing “needle-moving work” in assisting young families without a home...

…Yet his philanthropy also illustrates the need for special qualities of care in dealing with the homeless — qualities such as trust and patience.

For every 10,000 people in the United States, about 17 are homeless. Most of them are concentrated in urban areas. (CSM)

Around $1 billion(it’s $2B) didn’t bother me as much as citing distorted statistics that probably came from the highly inaccurate and widely criticized census mandated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty issued a report on HUD’s Point in Time (PIT) count which outlined why “the methods used by HUD to conduct the PIT counts produce a significant undercount of the homeless population at a given point in time.” That undercount confuses Congress and the public.

Here’s my “guesstimate” as to the likely scope of family/youth homelessness.

Understating the scope of homelessness is one thing. A big thing. Blurring the lines between families and the stereotypical “chronically homeless” adults is a serious faux pas. I covered that back in 2006, but evidently the lesson didn’t stick.

The editorial continued to get worse.

Pushing the responsibility of taking care of our nation’s growing homeless population onto faith communities is another major bone of contention. I knew the editorial was deteriorating when I read “trust and patience.”

Cake and bed. Photo by Diane Nilan

To be clear: I ran shelters for 15 years, big shelters — 100+ men, women and children every night — utilizing thousands of faith-based volunteers. We aimed to offer hospitality, and I think we were successful to a large degree. Looking back (I left in early 2003), I regret our inadequate model of sheltering, but it was the best we could do at the time with the sparse resources that continue to be sparse today.

Faith communities, to their credit, have been the slipped-disc backbone of the beleaguered emergency shelter “system” since the surge of people hit the streets back in the early 1980s.

These well-intentioned efforts tend to be an overnight seasonal shelter with people eating a volunteer-provided meal, sleeping on thin pads on the floor. Sure, it’s kept people alive, for the most part, but it’s a bandaid, not a solution.

We cannot give government a pass.

Government created this mess, starting back in the late ’70s. WRAP, a no-nonsense advocacy group created to “…expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities,” points out abundant failures of government which created and perpetuate homelessness (fact sheet). Unless we get the resources and policy changes to right the wrongs, no amount of trust and patience is going to help.

The CSM editorial continued down the wrong path,

Private groups can provide the stability of a relationship based on selfless, unconditional affection. This can give a homeless person the mental and moral strength to then accept living in a supportive, permanent home and move toward self-sufficiency.

Aw, come on. “Private groups” means faith communities, right? “Selfless, unconditional affection” is a good thing, but it sure doesn’t help when the shelter is closed for the day or the off-season.

And then they went there. “Housing First.”

Expensive, hard to rent apartment. Photo by Diane Nilan

Across the US, a strategy of “housing first” for the homeless has provided some relief to the problem. But to truly end homelessness rather than merely “manage” it will require investments in people dedicated to expressing the kind of compassion that will heal a homeless person’s life.(CSM)

Wait! Ending homelessness will require hiring people expressing compassion? Again, compassion is essential, but compassion without a place to live doesn’t cut it for those with no place to live.

Affordable housing, drastic shortage. Photo by Diane Nilan

Housing First, HUD’s latest attempt to reduce visible homelessness (HUD calls it “chronic homelessness” on (mostly) urban streets, has had mixed results. It has primarily been directed to individuals with multiple physical and mental challenges that have kept them on the streets for way too long.

The HF theory: a person moves into a real place, not a shelter, and (supposedly) has services wrap around them to help them overcome the issues that caused/perpetuated homelessness.

The HF reality: while some benefit from this opportunity — and I couldn’t be happier for them — it’s not meant for everyone. And this initiative has kept HUD programs from serving families and youth, with HUD’s meager funds not able to stretch to help the scores of families and youth that need a place to live. It doesn’t even begin to address the root causes of chronic homelessness for the adults it’s supposed to be helping. And the wrap-around services are more of a dream than reality.

Another homelessness advocate guru, SchoolHouse Connection’s executive director Barbara Duffield, points out:

Targeting assistance to people who currently meet the definition of chronically homeless does nothing to prevent chronic homelessness from happening in the first place.

Oh, and the families…how does HF work for them? Barbara takes aim at this HUD oversight.

…by relegating children and youth to the end of the queue in the nation’s plan to end homelessness, and failing to promote assistance that meets their unique needs, we ensure a continuous flow of homeless young people falling through the cracks, many to become “chronically homeless” themselves as the system continues to fail them over time.

I’ll let another primo homelessness advocate chime in on Housing First. Dr. Ralph de Costa Nunez has plenty to say on this topic:

The Housing First programs to which HUD is giving grants provide temporary rent support, typically for two years or less. The Family Options Study’s interim report determined that temporary rent subsidies failed to significantly improve the lives of families who were offered them. They appeared less expensive than some alternatives, but the savings diminished over time as families lost their apartments and slipped back into homelessness.

He adds:

HUD needs to remember that one size does not fit all. A rent voucher might well be the best solution for an otherwise self-supporting family that has suffered a temporary setback, such as an illness or lost job. But what drives most families into shelters are deeper-seated issues, such as a lack of education and employment skills, mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence.


I’ve taken up far too much of your time, but we do have the beginning of a solution. Get HUD to change the definition of homelessness to match the reality of it. This not-so-complicated issue is explained clearly here:


It takes a moment for you to connect with your federal elected officials to push for this change.

This issue, like other complex and increasingly common social problems, will require more than the “thoughts and prayers.” Maybe we can start with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or at least a “compassion epidemic.”

HEAR US Compassion Epidemic



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Diane Nilan

Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 17 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us