Saturday, April 14, 2007

Building the Political Will to End Homelessness

Last week, Real Change published No End in Sight, the critique of the Ten Year Plan to end homelessness that I posted here last Monday. The editorial, which argued that the Plan lacks a grassroots strategy and ignores fundamental realities, was intended to begin a discussion of how a more bottom-up effort might look.

While there is widespread skepticism toward the Ten Year Plan's prospects for success, there is also broad support for many of the Plan's goals. We hope to begin a conversation that a.) moves beyond what has been a stifled and largely top-down dialogue to have a real discussion of homelessness and poverty in Seattle, b.) builds an organizing model that is capable of moving a broad grassroots anti-poverty agenda, and c.) supports key Ten Year Plan goals by truly building the political will to end homelessness.

Nobody disputes that the major structural issues that stand behind homelessness (A market that does not support affordable housing, an economy in which many people are surplus and many others are poorly paid, and a federal government that has mostly devolved its responsibility for services to the localities and continues to withdraw support) are extremely daunting.

We must, however, move beyond local solutions that offer no challenge to basic structures of inequality. We need to stop accepting that homelessness is a local problem, and that local and private solutions are capable of meeting the need. We need to address the market forces that eliminate affordable housing nearly as fast as new subsidized housing alternatives come on line. We need to build coalition across issues to increase the bargaining power of labor and mitigate the failures of capitalism to meet basic human needs with adequate food, shelter, and healthcare for all of us.

We need to move away from models of managing homelessness and poverty that divide poor people and their advocates into competing issues and subpopulations, and move toward ways of organizing and meeting people's needs that bring us together across barriers of race and class.

None of this happens overnight. As we all work to build grassroots political will for Ten Year Plan priorities, we need to do so in a way that builds power for the long-term and begins to address the deeper problems that create homelessness. Here are a few quick thoughts to help get people thinking in a new direction.
  • Poor and homeless people should be meaningfully involved in the process. We should avoid tokenized input. Likewise, we should avoid romanticizing "the voice of the poor." We should be respectful and realistic, and very much about listening.
  • The distance between the experience of poor and homeless people and their middle class and affluent allies needs to be bridged by opportunities for dialogue and action that reach across barriers of class.
  • The professionalization of anti-poverty and human services advocacy has left us largely without the organized base of support that we need to effectively challenge money and power. Support for ending homelessness needs to be cultivated at a neighborhood by neighborhood level. Lots of people want the same thing. We need to get a lot better at building for power.
  • We need to start challenging the idea that little can be done about market forces that decrease the availability of low-income housing. While we should support reforms like the enlargement of the State Housing Trust Fund, we also need to look at how development and zoning policies impact affordability.
  • We need to use every tool available, including the citizen's initiative, to challenge the loss of housing affordability in Seattle.
  • We need to create more opportunities to come together, learn, and discuss. In the absence of community and dialogue, we often accept paradigms for reform and action that miss the point.
  • We need to recognize that there is huge structural unemployment in our economy, and start organizing for policies that address this issue instead of simply blaming the poor.
  • We need to get a lot better at working across issues and forming strategic alliances and coalitions. We need to hold the federal government more accountable for its role in increasing poverty and homelessness.
Yes. It's overwhelming. But over the past three decades, poverty, homelessness, and inequality have increased, and our largely depoliticized efforts toward advocacy and emergency sheltering have failed. It's time to broaden the conversation, start rethinking how an anti-poverty strategy that effectively builds for power might look, and to begin taking action in new ways.


John said...

Great post, Tim.

You're absolutely right that:

* solutions can't be merely local;
* the economy depends on widespread poverty (Adam Smith said that the existence of one wealthy person requires 500 people to be poor);
* we need to consider all tools available, including zoning and property laws.

Looking forward to future discussion!

Bonnie said...

This is so on-target Tim. "Building for Power" is the key; playing within the accepted rules will bring us more of the same - we have to change the rules.

Steph said...

Tim et al -
These conversations need to begin taking place soon. We need to be in the parks, on the streets and in the shelters having conversations with the people who live there. I am sick to death of having meetings to discuss homelessness in office buildings where a poor and/or homeless person hasn't ever entered. These conversations need to address the issues that created homelessness for people: mental illness, foster care, incarceration, drug addiction, evictions, medical bills...and the results need to include plans to end homelessness that address these basic needs. Last night around 10 PM I was in the park by the public market (can't think of the name of it) and there were many people out there who were home for the evening. I was a guest in their space and they welcomed me with open arms (and a few open beer cans!) These folks have the answers as to what creates homelessness thus leading to answers to end homelessness. How do we create round table conversations where street/park/shelter people are at the table with the mayor, the councilmembers and citizen voters? I've been bitching for months about the CEH and the 10 year plan -- but I've been afraid to invite my park friends to come to a meeting with me. So, how/when/where do we organize such a meeting and does anyone believe that the people who need the knowledge will show up to learn from those who have the knowledge?

Stephany said...

Though I am not affiliated with any group or organization, I spend quite a bit of time doing what Steph talks about--spending time with homeless people and taking the time to hear them tell me why they are homeless. I have been welcomed into conversations that are quite candid, and many have reasons for not wanting to use shelters, etc.
Resolving a problem without hearing from the people themselves is a salmon going up stream, and a resolution will never be found.
I am not a reporter, journalist or professional, but I have human compassion for people and want to know their stories. When I assist someone, it is by giving what often is most wanted--some dignity, and sometimes a bottle of water. Mainstream political desires to end homeless in 10 years is a lofty goal, and in my opinion most of the general public do not understand for one minute why a person flags on a corner or sleeps under a bush or a bridge. There will most likely never be an end to homelessness. So in my opinion, that is where the direction needs to go. How to take care of those in society who need us the most. There will always be someone sleeping under a bridge, in an alley, or other emcampment. I am an realistic optimist, and feel most of the bureaucrats want these people out of sight, and that's all.