Humans living, sleeping, dying on the streets is NOT normal

by Jon DeCarmine , Operations Director for GRACE

Imagine showing up at the emergency room. You’re having a heart attack. You need immediate attention. There’s two other people in there, one with a broken leg and one with a cut on their finger. You’re told that, since they arrived before you, the doctors and nurses will treat them first, and you’ll have to wait until you are called.

Once you’re seen, the doctors recognize you from the last time you had a heart attack. They had told you to change your lifestyle to include more exercise and a better diet. Since you didn’t follow their advice, they tell you that they’re not going to treat you until you lose 10 pounds and stop smoking.

This sounds ridiculous, right? That’s no way to deal with people in crisis, is it?

The ideas behind that approach – first come, first served, and the idea that only people who follow a specific set of guidelines are eligible for help – have set the tone for homeless services for the past 40 years. There wasn’t a lot of research that showed that it worked, and at best, we had agencies – with some notable exceptions– providing quick-fix, feel-good solutions that ultimately managed, rather than ended, people’s homelessness.

GRACE Marketplace operates under a housing first philosophy, and we’re pivoting our programs to make sure the people who need help the most get the assistance they need. As soon as someone arrives, we triage them to assess, ultimately, their risk of dying on the street if we don’t help them. The higher the score, the more at-risk they are.

In the past, shelters were funded if they operated under a “housing readiness” model aimed at “fixing” people’s problems – lack of income, substance abuse, mental illness – and after they had pieced their lives back together, we got them into housing. The new model turns all of that upside down. It’s so much easier to help someone deal with their problems when they are already housed. It’s easier to deal with a mental health crisis if you’re not living in an emergency shelter with 100 other people in crisis. It’s easier to find work when you can get a good night’s sleep, take a shower, or plug in an alarm clock.

It’s easier than it sounds. Housing ends homelessness. And ending homelessness is a radical act that requires support from the whole community. We’re doing this work because, for our entire lives, and the lives of our children, we’ve come to accept this idea that seeing human beings living, sleeping, and dying on the street is normal. We do it because right now, in Alachua County, there are at least five empty apartments for every person on the street. We do it because we believe that we should listen when people tell us what they need, and – regardless of whatever else they have going on in their lives – they should be able to get the help they need, when they need it, and in a way that solves their immediate housing crisis. We hope you’ll join us – check us out at for more information. D

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