During Live Below the Line Week, people are banding together to focus on eradicating poverty across the globe. Poverty touches billions of people, from Tacoma to Tanzania. The Live Below the Line campaign raises awareness about just how pervasive extreme poverty truly is.
One consequence of poverty that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on here in our home state of Washington is family homelessness. Like poverty, homelessness is often seen as an acutely local problem. Many argue that since no two families or communities are exactly the same, we can’t prescribe a “one-size-fits-all” approach to homelessness.
We agree. That said, as we think about solutions to homelessness, we must address its root causes—and ask how the larger social safety net has allowed so many people to fall through the cracks and become homeless.
Until recently, conversations about homelessness have too often been restricted by the geographic borders of cities, counties, states, and nations. In particular, there has been limited international conversation about the experience of—and responses to—homelessness in different countries.
As one local elected official in the Puget Sound region who was homeless as a child has said, “Too often the safety net acts more like a spider’s web than a trampoline.” Homelessness results from the combination of extreme poverty and the absence of sufficient social capital. Helping people who are homeless rebuild their lives requires that we address both of these issues.
In fact, the international Live Below the Line campaign, which launched this week, challenges all of us to make a difference on a global scale. The campaign, which began in Australia last year, has expanded to the United States and asks people to spend just $1.50 (U.S.) per day on food, for one week. Raising awareness about how a staggering 1.4 billion people are living on this amount every day, Live Below the Line helps us understand just how common this experience is.
I recently joined a group of 25 representatives from Great Britain, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and the United States for a four-day discussion on how we could help each other reach our national and local goals around homelessness. These conversations resulted in the creation of a new International Alliance to End Homelessness, which will focus on research, policy, and practice.
What struck me most about this convening was that, as the Live Below the Line campaign acknowledges, we have more in common across borders than we may have believed. This was especially true about the challenges each country faces in effectively identifying at-risk families and preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place. We also discussed what works—including solutions like “Housing First” that are taking root in many countries.
Imagine if the lessons derived from a local strategy that gives homeless families ongoing access to public housing in order to stabilize attendance in elementary schools actually succeeded in reducing homelessness, increasing educational success, and interrupting cycles of intergenerational poverty? The emerging International Alliance to End Homelessness may just provide the vehicle for sharing this information far and wide.
While our foundation’s work to reduce family homelessness is focused on Washington State, we can learn lessons from our partners around the world. Linking what we learn in communities across dozens of nations to a growing international commitment to end homelessness will get us even closer to achieving our goals. Turning our safety nets into trampolines will require nothing less than applying the best practices we can discover in each of our communities, wherever they surface around the globe.
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