Homelessness: How Can I Help?

July 21, 2022, Feature, by Austin Barrett and Allison Colman

august 2022 feature homelessness how can I help 410

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New perspectives on park and recreation departments' role in addressing homelessness

Across the country, park and recreation agencies meet the needs of their communities by providing numerous valued services, such as opportunities for physical fitness, social connection, out-of-school programming, and the conservation of natural habitats and environments. Beyond these, and many other well-recognized and mission-driven services, park and recreation agencies are increasingly helping community members experiencing homelessness and housing instability.

Homelessness in the United States continues to be a serious social and public health issue; one that is often an outcome of deeper societal problems, such as the lack of economic opportunity, the high cost of housing, lack of access to quality healthcare, systemic racism, domestic violence, and substance use and mental health disorder. Add in recent challenges, such as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and rising inflation/cost of living, and the conditions for housing instability become even more perilous for millions of U.S. residents.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates more than half-a-million people experience homelessness on any given night. However, it is widely acknowledged that this number undercounts the true scope of homelessness and does not include those living precariously in multiple family households or residing in hotels/motels. Regardless, HUD estimates nearly 60 percent of persons experiencing homelessness reside in sheltered settings, while the remaining 40 percent experience unsheltered homelessness. Along with sleeping in public spaces downtown, vehicles or abandoned buildings, public parks (in the open or in more discrete encampments) are a common place utilized by community members experiencing unsheltered homelessness.

As front-line service providers in communities across the United States, park and recreation agencies and professionals often are already providing community members experiencing homelessness with basic needs (food, hygiene facilities) and connection to other networks of assistance. However, homeless assistance isn’t within the primary mission scope for most park and recreation departments. Considering this, many park and recreation professionals may be asking themselves: What can and should we be doing to assist persons experiencing homelessness? Additionally, as front-line service providers attending to all members of the community, professionals also may be wondering what the general public expects their agency to do to be part of the solution.

New data shines a light on the public’s views on parks and recreation’s role in addressing homelessness and which specific strategies they believe agencies should pursue. In 2021, Drs. Lauren Mullenbach (University of Oklahoma), Nick Pitas (University of Illinois), and Ben Hickerson (University of North Carolina – Greensboro) conducted a nationwide survey reaching a representative cross-section of the U.S. public.

Among other things, their survey asked three timely questions to better understand public perception related to homelessness in parks: (1) What is the duty of park and recreation departments to help address homelessness? (2) Are park and recreation departments equipped to address homelessness? and (3) What specific actions should park and recreation departments pursue to help?

Duty and Capacity to Help

In general, the public did not view park and recreation departments as particularly obligated nor sufficiently resourced to help address homelessness. Less than half agreed park and recreation departments have a duty (44 percent) and are equipped (36 percent) to help (see Figure 1 below). Another quarter of respondents (29 percent and 27 percent, respectively) neither agreed nor disagreed with these statements, indicating that many members of the public do not have an opinion one way or the other. Collectively, it appears members of the public do not see providing assistance to persons experiencing homelessness as a fundamental duty/responsibility of park and recreation agencies.

Directors of urban park and recreation departments tend to agree. According to NRPA’s 2017 Homelessness in Parks report based on a survey of urban park and recreation directors, only 11 percent indicated their agency takes a leadership role in their city’s homelessness initiatives. Directors were more likely to say their agency is a partner or resource (53 percent), while a sizable 36 percent say their agency plays no significant role. Among the public and park and recreation professionals, there appears to be a general perception that homeless assistance is not currently a core mission or responsibility of park and recreation departments.

Specific Strategies to Help

While recognizing that providing homeless assistance is a peripheral role for most park and recreation agencies, there remain numerous ways — both big and small — that agencies can and are providing support to community members experiencing homelessness. As direct service providers to all members of the community and maintainers of public spaces, park and recreation professionals are in a unique position to engage with persons experiencing homelessness more frequently and more compassionately than other units of local government. So, considering this opportunity for impact, what could agencies do to help address homelessness?

The survey presented respondents with 12 specific strategies agencies could pursue to help address homelessness. Respondents rated their level of agreement with each strategy (see Figure 2 below). The results indicate that despite not seeing this as a core responsibility, individual actions are more supported. In fact, more than two out of three respondents agreed that eight of the strategies were appropriate ways park and recreation departments could help address homelessness.

The most agreed-upon strategies were related to meeting immediate, basic needs. These included providing temporary shelter at facilities during severe weather/temperatures (76 percent agree/strongly agree) and allowing access to hygiene facilities during specific days/times (75 percent). Park and recreation departments across the country have increasingly provided these kinds of services, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Partnering with law enforcement (73 percent), conducting outreach (73 percent) and training staff to develop productive relationships (72 percent) also were highly agreed-upon strategies. Outreach and authentic relationship-building based on compassion and trust is the first step to identifying root causes of a person’s experience of homelessness. However, developing person-to-person relationships and connections with people experiencing homelessness is not something that comes naturally to most people. Therefore, specific trainings on outreach techniques, crisis intervention and Mental Health First Aid are good places to start.

Finally, respondents also agreed departments should work to connect persons to permanent housing (70 percent) and collaborate with local homeless service organizations (69 percent). While it is not the role of park and recreation staff to be social workers or permanent housing providers, one of the most powerful tools a park and recreation professional can have is simply knowing about the homeless assistance resources available in their community (such as shelters, street outreach teams, domestic violence services, permanent housing providers and treatment programs) and being able to provide referrals. For example, if a park and recreation professional encounters an individual washing their clothes in a park bathroom, providing a referral to the local day-center where laundry services are available is a productive and likely non-punitive initial approach.

At the bottom of the list, respondents were less likely to agree with certain strategies, including strict enforcement of trespassing/loitering laws (55 percent), donating parkland for affordable housing construction (50 percent) and allowing persons experiencing homelessness to live indefinitely in parks (35 percent).

While there were generally high levels of support from the public about these specific assistance strategies, existing data indicates room for growth in the level of support agencies could provide. According to the Homelessness in Parks report, only 54 percent of agencies surveyed provide at least one type of service to people experiencing homelessness. Among these agencies providing services, the most common services are providing access to restrooms (91 percent) and showers (47 percent). Thirty-two percent provide shelter during periods of inclement weather and another 30 percent provide access to computers and telephones. Fifty-three percent of agencies train staff on ways to engage individuals experiencing homelessness more effectively.

A Leading Voice From the Field

Greg White is the director for City of Decatur – Active Living Division in Decatur, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. On a daily basis, he and his staff interact with four or five people experiencing homelessness around the community center and in the parks. As he explains, “Unhoused individuals are in our parks using benches, trails, restrooms and find our parks as places to stay cool during the summer months. The pandemic has really put this work in front of us daily as recreation professionals.”

Despite the pandemic, this work is not new for White. For years, his department has provided key services to people experiencing homelessness by meeting basic needs and providing referrals to key community partners. In White’s experience, it all starts with building trusting relationships and treating everyone he serves, including those experiencing homelessness, with dignity and respect. “First of all, I think it is important for that person to trust you. Once you get that trust piece, you’ll be able to connect the person to resources.”

Some of the immediate resources the Decatur Active Living Division provides include shelter during dangerous weather events, 24-hour access to restrooms, and operating a community food/clothing box. Similar to a “tiny library,” White, his team and community volunteers “stock the box” with water, fruit, sandwiches, clothing and other necessities.

Moving beyond basic needs is the next step the Decatur team is advancing. “Food and water provide immediate needs, but we want to help people long term,” says White. “This topic of unhoused is important because it impacts our work daily, from trash in the parks [and] people leaving items around the facilities… [to] enforcing rules around urban camping. The goal is to connect people to full wraparound resources in phases.”

As White explains, real sustained change occurs through partnerships with agencies specializing in housing and homelessness-related services. While these partnerships take time to seek out and establish, knowing the network of homeless assistance providers has helped White find his agency’s place within his local community’s homeless response system: “I don’t think it’s our role to try to solve it. We need to connect them to the people who have the expertise. That’s why it’s important to know who is in the community that’s doing this work.”

White advises other park and recreation professionals to not try and do it all by yourself. Instead, do what you can to leverage your strengths and provide for basic needs. And, to really make a difference, it takes being at the table with dedicated partners. He advises fellow park and recreation professionals to be involved in local task forces aiming to address homelessness in your community. These task forces often are composed of nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations, police departments, fire departments, libraries, downtown development associations and HUD-funded Continuums of Care.

When respect, empathy, and upstream and systems thinking are at the center of your response to homelessness, that’s when the magic happens. Relationships are formed and cross-sector partners work together to create systems that support all people. White provides an example: “I had a situation a month ago, an unhoused individual helped me help another family that was about to be displaced from the hotel. He told the family to call me, [and] I, in turn, called the nonprofit. The teamwork allowed the family to remain in the hotel and not be displaced to the streets.”

Through a trusted relationship, a connected park and recreation professional, an efficient referral and swift action by a community partner, a vulnerable family was able to remain in a safe situation while they worked toward longer-term stability. All White had to do to facilitate this success story was to be trusted in the community and know who to call.

The Takeaways

While homelessness is a nationwide problem, solutions are much more localized. There are numerous tangible ways parks and recreation can help and are helping to address this critical issue. Park and recreation departments are direct contributors to community health and wellness and are uniquely positioned to provide direct assistance, in many forms, to all community members, including persons experiencing homelessness. As White says, “Nobody touches more people than parks and recreation people. We know everybody in the community.” Meeting immediate needs — as you’re able — collaborating with local homeless-
dedicated agencies, and prioritizing outreach/training are all great steps to consider when thinking about how your agency could be a part of the solution. The key is to identify which strategies are within the mission and capacity of your agency to realistically pursue.

Special thanks to the valuable contributions of Greg White, Lauren Mullenbach, Nick Pitas and Ben Hickerson.

To hear more about this important topic from White, as well as NRPA’s Austin Barrett and Allison Colman, tune in to the August bonus episode of Open Space Radio.

Austin Barrett (he/him) is an Evaluation Manager with NRPA. Allison Colman (she/her) is the Director of Health for NRPA.