Being Poor and Sick Should Not be a Crime

Being Poor and Sick Should Not be a Crime

I have been watching other communities nationwide struggling with how to address homelessness. For some areas, their answer is to criminalize it, which now may be decided by the Supreme Court as to its constitutionality. It’s unfortunate that their best idea for ending homelessness was to make it a crime.

As the leader of Pathway Homes, a local nonprofit that serves those facing challenges related to poverty and mental illness — including in Fairfax County, we work hard to keep people out of homelessness. We know that getting people into housing first is the best first step to connect them with critical mental health and social services so they can reconnect with their lives. That’s why it’s disturbing to see a growing number of communities nationwide outlawing homelessness.

Housing brings stability, safety, health, and hope. Through our Housing First model, we served 2,074 men and women in 2023 with 526 permanent supportive housing units. Our case management services focus on helping individuals attain and strengthen the skills needed to manage their mental and physical health, maintain their home, enhance personal relationships, develop healthy life habits, and promote the achievement of personal goals.

Nearly all the people we serve stay out of jails, out of psychiatric facilities, and off the streets. Our services are cost-effective for the community, delivering significant savings compared to the costs of incarceration or hospitalization. Even more importantly, it helps people regain their lives.

As one of our residents who has struggled with schizophrenia and lived on the streets in Centreville for many years explained: “When I wake up in the morning, I am excited about my life and have a sense of hope and optimism. Having housing makes me feel like somebody. It makes me feel that I now have what most people have. Housing gave me a life.”

Here in Fairfax, we know there are more people to reach. They may be in tents, or staying on couches of friends and relatives, or roaming the streets with their belongings. We know that the partnerships between outstanding nonprofits, the local government, caring citizens, and the faith communities are working to make a real difference. In fact, the number of people who are homeless in Fairfax shrunk by 2% from last year.

Take pride in our community’s effective efforts to solve the issue. Criminalizing homelessness will only cause jails to fill up at a cost to taxpayers, life changing services not being delivered, and fragile lives never to be reclaimed. A better solution is to invest in the nonprofits addressing poverty and the housing crisis and that deliver effective mental health services. That’s what caring communities like ours do.

Dr. Sylisa Lambert-Woodard is CEO of Pathway Homes, a mental health nonprofit working to prevent and end homelessness