This problem is not exclusive to the people in the meeting I attended. I see this attitude prevail throughout the social services system - nationwide. It permeates administrators, grant writers, program directors, and policy makers. The idea doesn't seem to originate with social workers and case managers but seems to seep from the top down. When I bring the issue up I am met with the attitude, "but this is the concept on which the grants are founded". That's fine. But the concept is wrong. Which is why the programs aren't working.
My problem is not with the word barrier. Many homeless people experience serious barriers to their functioniong independently. But what constitutes a barrier? Not everything which blocks a homeless client from getting housing is a barrier. Some of the "barriers" to being housed are actually "behaviors". What do I mean and why is this a point of contention?
In my humble opinion, a barrier is something which exists outside of a person that presents an obstacle to them achieving their goals. It is not created or exacerbated by them. It is created by a culture or a society or genetics or other forces outside of their control. Racism is a barrier. Sexism is a barrier. These are fairly easy to see and understand. No one chooses to be a race or gender which experiences discrimination and prejudice. This is assigned to you at birth. Nor does a person contribute to the creation of those barriers. They are created and maintained outside of the person. True barriers which I frequently see in the homeless population are mental illness and medical disabilities. One does not choose to be schizophrenic. One does not choose to be paraplegic. These are barriers which exist through no fault of the client and which must be overcome. The services of a good case manager or social worker in accessing community resources which will allow the client to overcome these barriers is invaluable.
But this is not how I hear the word "barriers" being applied. Many of the "barriers" faced by the chronically homeless are not external. They are self-inflicted. Repeatedly failing to pay one's utility bills is not a barrier. It is a behavior. Repeatedly getting into relationships with drug addicts and being evicted because you have allowed your new girlfriend to turn your affordable housing into a crack house is not a barrier. It is a behavior. Choosing to pay your boyfriend's bail instead of the rent is not a barrier, it is a behavior. Consistently refusing to hold down steady employment and being evicted for not being able to pay the rent is not a barrier, it is a behavior.
The reasons I object so strongly to the misuse of this word are three. First, labeling the failure to be responsible for paying one's bills in the same category with racism, sexism, mental illness or medical disabilities dilutes the seriousness with which we consider true barriers. I strongly object to lumping inappropriate behaviors in the same category with schizophrenia or racial discrimination.
Second, referring to behaviors as barriers implies that the client has not responsibility for or power over changing them. A barrier is not something a single individual can ford. A behavior is. And failing to hold a client responsible for their behavior and their choices infantilizes and enables them. Labeling a history of evictions as a "barrier" implies that the client has no control over how those evictions occurred and can do nothing to stop them from occurring in the future. It voids the client's responsibility in the accumulation of those evictions. It makes the client a victim of outside, unseen forces. If accumulating repeated evictions is an external barrier, then the client is doomed to suffer this setback again and again because nothing has changed to prevent it. Currently, we identify multiple evictions as a "barrier" and pay them off so the client is once again eligible for housing. This does not solve the problem because the problem is not being accurately defined. What happens? The client re-enters affordable housing, repeats the same behaviors that resulted in evictions before, acquires a new eviction and returns to the homeless shelter where their new eviction is labeled a "barrier" and paid off again.
Lastly, how we label the problem determines how we approach solving it. True social barriers need to be addressed by social services. Better programs need to be designed to specifically address the needs of the mentally ill population. Programs designed to assist the medically disabled need to be accessed. But behaviors require a clinical intervention - therapy. Clients who demonstrate patterns of behavior which result in repeated instances of homelessness need counseling, not social services. The problem is not a social problem. It is an individual problem which requires an individual intervention.