The homeless are fast becoming one of the major challenges for public services across the nation and here in Marion County. There is an array of programs, shelters and campaigns here and throughout the United States to address the issue. Public officials and private sector organizations work to find solutions that so far has proven unsolvable.

Marion County does not have the visual evidence of its homeless that major cities face. In some of America’s largest cities one will find block after block filled with tent communities of the homeless. It is disconcerting at the least. The public cries out “Do something!”

People are homeless for different reasons be they economic, mental health issues, problems with illicit drugs, shattering of the family unit or any kind of support system. Understanding that basic truth of the homeless makes the cry to do something less clear. Do what? By whom?

While creating programs, devising shelters and compiling reports, the municipalities and organizatons invovled need also to come up with  suggestions for what Joe Public can do to help. As a generous nation our people always ask “What can I do?” If all that is needed by the organizations addressing the homeless issue is financial support, they need to megaphone that need and lay out how contributions will be used.

Everyone and every industry can have a hand in alleviating the homeless issue. For some it may be a financial donation to a charity that is hosting a shelter or a food kitchen or medical care for those on the street. Those things satisfy the daily needs of people but they don’t come close to finding a home for those who want one.

Finding affordable  housing has become difficult for those without a constant history of being a renter or those who are un- or under-employed. The strong residential real estate market weighs heavy on apartments and other multi-family housing options. Benefiting from market-led supply and demand, owners of multi-family residences are in the driver’s seat when it comes to setting rates. That’s called the free market system and should not be disrupted, but there are solutions.

Cities, counties and the state can draft legislation to provide attractive incentives for owners of buildings to convert space into low-income housing. Attractive incentives can include tax breaks as well as waiving and discounting of permitting fees. Any incentives should be good enough to make any property owner to seriously consider them. The alternative for a property owner is to let market forces reward them.

Housing for those now homeless should not be free. Those who receive housing need to compensate for it either by paying low monthly rents or with a signed contact to help maintain the residence.

Homelessness is a cruel way to live. How does society aid those who find themselves without a home due to domestic violence, drugs or mental health issues? Rather than look to government to address and solve the problem, society needs to ask itself what they are willing to do, if anything, to help those who need a hand up rather than a hand out. Regardless of what solution one considers there is money required. Some in the private sector may question why their tax dollars are going for those who decide to live outdoors. That is a simplistic question; given a choice, wouldn’t everyone rather have a home to live in?

Most people would agree that a government’s primary role is to protect its people and keep them safe. Protecting people against the ravages of homelessness is no less important than maintaining the defense of the nation from outsiders. Government can’t help those who don’t want help but it can certainly be in the corner of those who seek a hand up.

These are vulnerable people living in our parks and on our sidewalks. Unless we, the people, collectively decide to privatize the homeless, we must rely on our public officials to do the right thing and allocate enough money for those most in need.  As a people we don’t have the training to counsel someone with mental health issues, that has to come from the experts. The same goes for those people fighting addiction and who are homeless. There is a certain skill set that the average person does not have and we turn to the professionals.

What we, as a society have, is empathy. Understanding, acceptance, respect and amity offered by us will go a long way to let those who are homeless through no fault of their own know they are not alone. The homeless are not invisible and we shouldn’t treat them as such.

With an economy that is booming there certainly are jobs available to those unemployed homeless. We have to have the will to help address the problem so it is no longer a black mark on society. Ask society to lend a hand for its own benefit as well as the homeless and society will answer affirmatively.