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Homeless icon panhandling begging

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Brian Johnson understands what it’s like to be homeless.

Although today he’s the executive director of the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area, he told his story on Friday night in a TED style talk at The Placer building on Last Chance Gulch.

His talk will be posted online at facebook.com/challengehelena by Challenge Helena, a local organization whose website says it's made up of "people who believe that through courageous compassion people can be empowered to transform their community and make positive change to serious issues of poverty facing our neighbors."

The outcome of his talk on behalf of Challenge Helena, he explained, was to enlist support for ending homelessness locally and to add to the cadre of volunteers who on Jan. 29 will go out across the community to count those who don’t have a home.

The Point-in-Time Survey looks at those without homes on a single night. The Annual Homeless Assessment Report is prepared for Congress on the extent and nature of homelessness in America, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

The nationwide estimate on homelessness is used by local social service organizations when seeking federal funds.

Johnson and his siblings spent much of their time growing up in 20 different foster homes, sometimes together and sometimes apart.

“I would really, really like to stop being homeless,” he told the audience that filled by building’s lobby for the presentation. “But it’s a hard habit to break.”

“The way we define the problem determines the scale and scope of solutions,” Johnson said.

To help dispel some of the myths about those who are homeless, he asked the audience to close its eyes and picture who is homeless.

Despite the obvious images of people living on the street, Johnson said there’s also invisible homelessness – people who aren’t obviously without permanent housing.

Myths hold people back from creating lasting solutions to homelessness, he said.

According to data from the October 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress prepared by HUD and used in Johnson’s presentation, 578,424 people nationwide were homeless, of which 135,701 were children.

Locally, the number of people who are homeless has increased steadily since 2007 when 1,150 were counted as without homes. The statewide count this year was 1,745, a slight decline from the 1,878 who said they were homeless in 2013.

The number of people who are homeless or on the verge of being homeless in Helena has generally increased steadily during that time too, Johnson said.

In 2007 there were 353 people in Helena who were homeless, compared to 645 who reported being homeless during the 2014 count.

Numbers on homelessness among students in Helena School District 1 showed a dramatic rise from 2012 when 40 reported being homeless to 167 this year, according to Johnson’s numbers.

However, he attributed the rise in state and local numbers to a greater awareness of the problem as opposed to new causes for homelessness.

Because of what the public expects from its schools in the way of programs, he called for greater public support of local schools.

While the Point-in-Time Survey is the best tool available for determining the scope of homelessness, Johnson said, it’s inadequate.

The data gleaned from that single day and definition of homelessness are problems in the assessment, he explained.

Poverty, wage inequality and affordable housing are all causes for homelessness, he said and noted the poverty level for a family of three is $19,790.

How poverty is defined is one of the deep reasons for a homeless situation, he continued and explained, “Many of our federal programs depend on the poverty line.”

The second reason for homelessness is wage inequality. To illustrate this, he said that the top 1 percent of wage earners in 1976 were bringing home 9 percent of the income. By 2012, that 1 percent received 24 percent of the total income, Johnson said.

Federal investment in affordable housing plays a role also, as it’s declined in the last three to four decades, Johnson said.

The decrease was 48 percent, he continued, adding, “Affordable housing is one of the big reasons for homelessness in our community.”

“You’ve come with me this far,” he said to the audience, “Come with me one more step.”

“I need you to make homelessness part of your agenda personally, because I would really, really like to stop being homeless forever.”

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Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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