This Columbus Day afternoon, my wife joined a group of concerned citizens at the Carlisle town square to increase awareness of local homelessness. Earlier this year, the advocacy group formed NOAH — New Options for Affordable Housing. NOAH was featured in The Sentinel last weekend and I learned that Carlisle has about 200 homeless people who are not covered by the local programs that provide temporary shelter and support.

According to the 2016 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress: “On a single night in 2016, 549,928 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. A majority (68 percent) was staying in emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, or safe havens, and 32 percent were in unsheltered locations. ... Over one-fifth of people experiencing homelessness were children (22 percent), 69 percent were over the age of 24, and 9 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24.” Disturbingly, 35 percent of the reported homeless were families with children; 11 percent are veterans who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. In 2016, Pennsylvania ranks seventh among states in total homeless populations.

As we have watched the devastation from the natural disasters of wildfires and hurricanes inflicted on people in our states and U.S. territories, our hearts have gone out to those Americans who have lost their homes and communities. Compassionately, there has been a tremendous outpouring of support from nonprofit, faith-based, corporate, and government organizations for those who no longer have a home to return to.

It would appear that same generosity of spirit and giving does not extend to the chronically homeless in our nation. Could it be that we attribute their situation to bad choices, lack of character, or something else of their doing? Should there be a difference in how we treat the results of natural and “man-made” disasters?

It is instructive to understand federal definitions such as: “Chronically Homeless Individual refers to an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for 1 year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last 3 years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.”

Definitions do not question or judge how individuals or families became homeless, rather they help to address the specific challenges. In fact, 84 percent of the homeless populations across the nation are not chronically so and may not have disabilities — their homelessness need not be an enduring condition. Appropriately, two of the four federal goals are to “Prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020” and “Set a path to ending all types of homelessness.”

Perhaps as a community, we should set such goals in our Carlisle Borough and in Cumberland County to actively support groups like NOAH and Carlisle CARES. While current local homeless estimates seem to be low, with about 11 children and 50 adults in Carlisle who receive temporary shelter through CARES, we should not ignore or wish away the 200 who have no housing solutions.

My wife shared with me the following quote by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative: “…My work with the poor… has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

Let us seek justice in our community.

Col. Charles D. Allen, U.S. Army, Ret., is professor of leadership and cultural studies at the U.S. Army War College.

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