Post originally published on Change.org
Lessons on Ending Homelessness from the Netherlands
Social change through social media, an increasingly popular idea, is real. Here’s one way it works: a couple of months ago Rich was contacted through the networking site LinkedIn byAlexander Hogendoorn, a social worker and homeless advocate from The Netherlands. Alexander was on holiday in New York City for a couple of weeks, and he and Rich met for a few hours to share ideas and stories of their work on the front lines of the movement to end homelessness.
In the early 2000s, Alexander worked on creating supportive housing programs in Rotterdam, the second largest city in The Netherlands. According to Alexander, in 2002 the general sentiment in The Netherlands was that homeless people were a problem. Homelessness was their fault, they were drug addicts, and the country needed to get rid of them. Sounds familiar.
The government in The Netherlands is parliamentary, so they have a prime minister and they govern through coalitions. When Rich asked if this made it more difficult to advocate because you are dealing with multiple parties in power, Alexander said no, because the politicians in his country are very interested in compromising and coming to an agreement satisfactory to all. If only our polarized politicians were like this.
Some Netherlands legislators visited NYC in the early 2000s and learned about “zero tolerance” policies in the city designed to “motivate” the homeless and decided to implement them back home. As in America, they didn’t work. No surprise there.
Shortly thereafter many new government officials that came into power were of the “younger” generation and didn’t hold many of the same prejudices as their older predecessors. They were open to listening to homeless advocates who presented data about the high costs of housing persons in homeless shelters and giving them care in emergency rooms compared with the relatively low costs of a housing first model and supportive housing coupled with preventive medical care. Activists also brought politicians to the streets to meet homeless individuals and learn what challenges they’re facing.
Amazingly, the politicians listened. They proceeded to change the laws to state that the government should house the homeless and provide supportive services. They built thousands of units of housing with supportive services.
Initially, there was NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” sentiment by many of the Dutch. But once a supportive housing residence was built and the people moved in, neighbors saw that the neighborhood would not become a disaster as they feared, and then they became vocal advocates for more supportive housing in other neighborhoods. Also, once the politicians listened, changed the laws and spoke of the benefits of working to end homelessness, public sentiment started to turn around as well.
What has been the result? Alexander says that in 2002 there were 3,000 homeless adults in Rotterdam. Now there are 500. That is an 83 percent decrease in a short period of time. The remaining 500 are the chronically homeless. As in America, this population is challenging to engage and keep engaged.
Next up: youth homelessness, since there are currently 1,500 homeless children and young people. Rich was curious why officials didn’t target the children first, as we would think this would be a population that could easily garner political and public support. Alexander said that politicians didn’t focus on them because they weren’t as much of a “problem” as adults and weren’t as visible. By “problem,” he meant that the adults were the ones who would approach people and ask for money, and be on the streets. The youth weren’t as vocal or conspicuous.
Rich’s time with Alexander was inspiring and insightful. The overriding theme is that homelessness is homelessness. It doesn’t matter where in the world it occurs … except when it comes to solving the problem. The Netherlands is way ahead of us on that one. We can learn so much by working together across nations. We will then see how similar we all are.
(Alexander also wrote a blog post about our meeting. You can read it here).
To read post on Change.org, click here.
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