To be without a roof over one's head — homelessness — is usually considered the nadir of poverty in America. To many, it implies not only a lack of money, but the exhaustion of options, the end of the rope, dereliction.
But there's another way of looking at it. Such destitution, often triggered by circumstances beyond the control of the destitute, may be only a setback. Given a path out and the means to proceed, the homeless can rise to self sufficiency.
They just need a hand.
That's why we admire the St. Vincent de Paul Society's Front Door program. This effort, launched in 2009, started in Baltimore City, but recently expanded to the suburbs, where studies show that poverty is growing. The counties around Baltimore were home to an estimated 159,000 poor in 2011, compared to 150,000 in the city.
Front Door recognizes that subsistence strategies like soup kitchen lines and homeless shelters are mere holding actions. The program teaches financial planning, among other skills, and moves clients into housing with the rent covered for a time.
Such a program is due in the Baltimore suburbs, where the population of poor grew 58 percent between 2000 and 2011 [the growth rate in the city over the same period was 4 percent], according to a study by the Brookings Institution.
In Baltimore County, officials estimate that 550 stay in shelters nightly and another 200 sleep on the streets.
In its current form — funded by United Way, and public and private dollars — Front Door focuses on "rapid rehousing" in which clients undergo case management that includes job-readiness training and classes on such things as financial literacy, parenting and nutrition. They are even shown how to open a savings account.
When it comes to finding housing, the client signs the lease, but St. Vincent de Paul acts as guarantor of the rent, at least for a while, and can provide help with a security deposit and furniture. This gives landlords, naturally skeptical of tenants with a history of homelessness, the confidence to participate in the program.
Once tenants can begin working for a paycheck and paying rent, they can begin restoring their credit rating, which can be the ticket to a car loan.
Suburban jurisdictions are playing a catch-up game in coping with those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. They don't have the infrastructure — especially the convenient public transportation that can replace the need for a car — that cities do.