So recently Street Sense launched this project where vendors (people experiencing homelessness) periodically go to the hill, meet senators and give them issues of the Street Sense newspaper. Below is a highlight of the interview with senator Al Franken on Ending Homelessness:

What do you think is key to ending homelessness?

I think there are a lot of keys. I’m a big champion of cradle to career models of education. Jeffrey Canada of The Harlem Children’s Zone has a good approach. They have a Baby Academy where parents learn how to be parents. It starts very early. You have to attack it in different ways. One, you need housing. The best cure for homelessness is a home. There are a lot of homeless people in America who have one difficulty or another, whether it be mental illness or whether it be addiction or a criminal record or whatever.

We have a thing we do in Hennepin County where I’m from, in Minneapolis. The county Medicaid system has changed because of the Affordable Care Act and they use some of that Affordable Care Act money to get people housing. If you get housing for someone who, say, has an addiction or a mental health issue, then they won’t get arrested, and they won’t end up in the emergency room. Those outcomes are very expensive for the county, especially the hospital and the jail.

Instead, if they are in a home and you can get them wraparound services — including a navigator to help because sometimes all this stuff is very complicated to qualify for and there’s a lot of bureaucracy — you can also get them either some kind of treatment and job training. That’s something that can actually save the county money.

Right now I’m trying to do something with Tom Tillis, a Senator from North Carolina, a Republican. Our staffs have gotten together to try to find ways to continue with pilot programs like that, so we can find a model that is proven to work. I think providing a home does a number of things. One, emergency rooms don’t get tied up. Jails don’t get tied up. But also, more importantly, it improves people’s lives.

It starts with the premise that the best cure for homelessness is a home. You get someone housing and their life becomes much, much, immediately better in terms of the ability to know where you’re going to be and to be able to buy food and all that stuff.

Compared to what you’ve seen in D.C., what does poverty look like for your constituency?

I haven’t done a comparative analysis but I would imagine there are some of the same factors. In Minneapolis, we have a lot of American Indians in urban settings, so demographically it’s a little different. What’s interesting is that in Indian country, that’s on reservations, there are no homeless shelters and essentially what people do is just go live with somebody else. That’s not always the best thing for the kids because the kids could become exposed to different traumas.

Earlier, I was saying that the Promise Neighborhood model that Jeffrey Canada put together is a good thing. It includes not just Baby Academies but also social workers who work with the family, starting when the kid is zero, and home visits, and making sure that those kids aren’t exposed to situations or conditions that create trauma.

There are a lot of studies about the effects of trauma in childhood, early childhood. The term is “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, and there are studies showing that ACEs lead to a change in brain chemistry and that change creates barriers to learning. The fight-or-flight impulses kick in and it’s harder to concentrate on homework and it’s harder to succeed.

[Jeffrey Canada] has been very successful in creating an environment that kids learn in. I think it’s all tied together and that’s just the way life is. Everything is connected to everything else.


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