According to The Unheavenly City, Edward Banfield’s influential 1970 book on urban slums, the homeless “underclass” is made up of flawed individuals who cannot plan, save or work for the future. Driven by impulse and immediate gratification, they resent authority, have no sense of community, and lack both friends and stable long-term relationships.
EDC’s John Wong knows better. EDC partners with St. Francis House in Boston on a number of programs addressing issues of homelessness and addiction. As the director of these projects, Wong has seen people reclaim their lives after years of addiction and homelessness. In an essay published last month in the Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, Wong and his co-author Gene Mason describe the Moving Ahead Program, a recovery program at St. Francis that has a success rate of 80%, compared with the national average of 26%.
“Reviled, Rejected, but Resilient: Homeless People in Recovery and Life Skills Education,” profiles three women graduates of MAP, illustrating how the program helps homeless addicts by identifying their strengths, building their skills—and listening to their dreams.
Most traditional case management models for helping the homeless focus on securing social services, Wong explains. MAP goes further, making learning, self-improvement, and long-term goals—pursued in a supportive environment—central to recovery. By helping an individual change his outlook, behavior, and relationships, Wong says, recovery grows out of positive goals, rather than “a tortured search for will power” to resist addiction. “At MAP an addict finds people who believe in him, who say, ‘let’s think about your strengths, not your weaknesses.’ That works better and lasts for a longer time.”
MAP couples training in job seeking—reading classified ads, filling out job applications, writing resumes, and dressing for, speaking at, and following up on job interviews—with a 7-week work internship. The internships are part of MAP’s emphasis on finding a career, rather than a stop-gap job. “MAP offers a skills and interest inventory and encourages people to pursue those interests,” says Wong. “If you get a dead-end job, you’ll soon find you have too little money and too much stress—and then you’re out of there and soon back on the streets.”
Another element of creating a new life involves finding new interests, and new places to pursue them. Through MAP’s Cultural Literacy component, participants attend sporting events, museums, plays, and live music. They connect to civic life through visits to public libraries and the Massachusetts State House; they polish their social skills at fine restaurants. Other classes teach money management and how to save for a future that is newly possible.
Dr. Howard Shaffer, Director of the Division on Addiction at Harvard Medical School, is conducting a long-term study of attitudinal and behavioral changes prompted by MAP. His preliminary assessment suggests that MAP participants maintain high levels of motivation and interest as they develop new work competencies, and experience increased self-regard and self-esteem through the program’s socializing components. In Shaffer’s opinion, the authors state, MAP has the capacity to ”revolutionize how addiction rehabilitation services are delivered in this country.”
With funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Wong and his colleagues have begun offering symposia on the MAP model in eight regions of the country. Feedback from the first two symposia, in North Carolina and Missouri, was so strong, Wong says, they’ve been asked to help replicate the MAP model in both places. EDC also plans to develop a MAP training center in collaboration with St. Francis House and the Harvard Medical School.
Originally published on October 1, 2001