Wednesday, July 25, 2007
The Definition of Insanity
On Tuesday, I went to a press conference at the Lora Lake Apartments in Burien, where, for once, the news was good. Representatives from King County, the Committee to End Homelessness, and the Church Council of Greater Seattle stood behind Port Commissioner Bob Edwards and offered a united front on the question of preserving affordable housing.
If Edwards can bring the other Port commissioners and the City of Burien around, there will be 162 fewer units of affordable family housing lost to market forces this year.
This region now has less rental housing available than two years ago. Over that time, 4,000 rental units were lost to condo conversion. Add another 3,000 for this year, and you have a market where vacancy rates are at a 20-year low, and rents are up by 10 percent or more.
One may visualize the housing market as a huge ladder, where more and more people are struggling to hold onto fewer rungs. When housing gets more expensive, those who have more resources but can’t afford to move higher begin to occupy the lower rungs. Those with the weakest grip fall off. Some landings are harder than others.
Market forces do not stand still for the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. As the years go ticking toward the number 10, it is plain that the King County goal of 950 new and upgraded housing units each year, without any real assist from the federal government, is somewhat beyond our reach.
This is a symptom of a larger problem.
For more than a decade, homeless advocacy has suffered from a pathetic absence of vision. The 20th anniversary of the McKinney-Vento Act, the landmark legislation that provides nearly all federal funding for homeless services, offers the perfect occasion to revisit basic assumptions.
While federal funding for housing has been cut by $52 billion since its 1979 peak, McKinney-Vento funding to mitigate homelessness has never been more than $1.5 billion annually. We win minor battles while we ignore the larger war.
But the war doesn’t ignore us.
The consensus statement released last week by national homeless advocates is a welcome breath of fresh air. There is explicit recognition that McKinney-Vento is necessary but not sufficient. There is a call for the feds to dramatically expand their role in providing housing. There is recognition that the attack on poor people's programs must be halted and reversed. The civil rights crisis that exists for homeless people is named for what it is, and there is a call for a wage-led strategy to reduce poverty.
At one time, advocates approached homelessness as an extreme symptom of the broader issue of poverty. We all instinctively know that extreme poverty and ridiculous excess do not mix. Homelessness in America is a sweeping indictment of the federal priorities that privilege the rich over the poor.
But one rarely hears homelessness discussed in these terms. Federal funding priorities place our focus on the chronic homeless: the mentally ill, addicted, and alcoholic homeless who, in less enlightened times, were known as “bums.” In other words, it’s not the system that’s seen as screwed up. It’s the people.
Advocates need to stop playing into the federally-driven strategy of divide and conquer. We must instead look more to our natural allies: kids, single parents, the elderly, the uninsured, and the disabled. Homelessness is mostly about low wages and high rents. It was true three decades ago, and it’s true now.
Our movement has little commitment to addressing race and poverty. We act as though the prison-industrial complex, which is also about structural unemployment, doesn’t even exist. The selective blindness of most white people in this regard is nearly unforgivable.
Meanwhile, the growth in family homelessness is accelerating. The answer to this is already starting to emerge from Washington. That would be, of course, the Ten Year Plan to address family homelessness.
I wish that were a joke.
Philip Mangano, President Bush’s point man on homelessness, likes to defend the narrowly focused 10-year plan strategies to end homelessness by saying the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing year after year when we know it doesn’t work.
Federal policy on homelessness is designed to distract, stigmatize, and divide. McKinney-Vento in the absence of a broader federal anti-poverty and pro-housing strategy just sets us up to fail, and 10-year plans that narrowly focus on chronic homelessness while ignoring the structural realities of poverty and inequality are cut from the same cloth.