Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Politics of Illusion

McKinney-Vento, the Federal statute that allocates funding to programs serving homeless people, is up for reauthorization, and the fight this time, as always, is over the definition of who, exactly, is homeless, and the political consequences of that number.

Most people don't realize that different bureaucracies go by different definitions. The Department of Education definition of "homeless" includes families that are doubled up or living in short term poverty hotel situations. As a result, there are 903,000 homeless kids who receive protections that allow them to attend public schools despite their lack of formal residency. A letter from the National Education Association to members of Congress reads as follows:
The Department of Education definition of homelessness reflects the realities of family and youth homelessness. Public schools are the cornerstone of communities; no other entity has the same level of daily contact with children, youth, and families. Schools see the scope and the depth of housing problems in every community in the nation, and therefore are among the most accurate barometers of family and youth homelessness. Schools serve children whose families cannot get into shelters because they are full, or non-existent. Schools also serve children and youth who are excluded from shelters because of eligibility rules.

Homeless children and youth are at grave risk of educational failure and dropping out of school. Children who are moving from place to place – and are tired, hungry, sick, and traumatized – face significant barriers to academic success. Yet, the narrow definition proposed in the mark will undercut public school efforts to help these children. The definition will make it harder for schools and other agencies to work together and will prevent vulnerable children and youth from receiving the services they need to come to school ready and able to learn.

By aligning HUD’s definition more closely with the Department of Education, communities will be better equipped to serve these vulnerable children and youth. Again, we urge the Committee to adopt the Biggert-Davis amendment to include in the HUD definition children and youth who are verified as homeless by public schools.
Were HUD to adopt the Department of Education definition, these homeless families would be eligible for housing assistance and other benefits that might ease their way to stability. This, despite the strong efforts of progressive homeless advocates, looks unlikely. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, the 800-pound gorilla of homeless advocacy that serves as an almost quasi-governmental agency in pushing the Bush Administration Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness agenda, is opposed.

Dennis Culhane, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the 10YP paradigm's intellectual architects, says why in the current issue of Time Magazine.
"There's a very large housing problem in this country," he says. "But shoehorning new people into the homeless category isn't going to make a hill of beans of difference. It's only going to dilute what we're doing." He points to the U.S. budget for homelessness, which is just $1.5 billion a year. That's barely enough to help fund the Housing First push; it's not going to bail out families caught up in the foreclosure crisis.
Great. The problem is too big to solve given current resources. So let's maintain the illusion that we're winning the war on homelessness at the expense of children. Throw 'em to the goddamn wolves.

Speaking of illusions, yesterday I wrote about the Good News from HUD, reported in the NYT, that chronic homelessness is down by 30% since 2005. Rejoice!

I spoke to a reporter today and offered four good reasons for why the HUD number is total bullshit.

1.) The McKinney definition of "chronically homeless" narrowed over this period. It's the oldest trick in the world, but still a good one.

2.) When I was a homeless advocate in Boston, we always did an action at the Federal Building on January 21st, statistically the coldest day in the year. In 2006, the Feds mandated that, for consistency's sake, all One Night Counts be performed during the same period, during the third week of January. Counts dropped. Victory was declared.

3.) In the context of escalating and systematic harassment by police in cities everywhere, all of which routinely profess their great commitment to "ending homelessness" through their Ten Year Plans, homeless people have simply made themselves harder to find. When you know a cop might come around to steal your blanket, the logical response is to hide.

4.) There is tremendous institutional incentive to lie. This is what the concept of "political will to end homelessness" has become: an exercise in bureaucratic legerdemain to deliver numbers that look like success, whatever the actual reality may be. This, theoretically, keeps the funds flowing. There are serious problems with this as a long-term strategy that will most likely fail. You can only lie for so long before the truth becomes apparent, and the hard end of this road is probably closer than any of us thinks.

I harsh a lot on Ten Year Plans. The irony is that I believe the principal of Housing First works. As an advocate, I've said that housing is the solution to homelessness for more than twenty years. But it has to be funded. The Feds are AWOL from the table and retreating, and localities can't do it on their own. Seattle's 10YP, which is missing its goals by approximately half, is one of the success stories. This does not bode well.

But this, relatively speaking, is a minor problem. The larger issue is that narrow, social service solutions to homelessness that evade inconvenient issues of poverty and inequality are incapable of capturing a political constituency that can build for power.

To frame homelessness in terms of the most dysfunctional 10-15%, and constantly describe them as mentally ill people, drunks, and drug addicts who are an expensive burden that must be met one way or another, is stigmatizing and self-defeating. When defending this definition comes at the expense of helping kids, the evil is multiplied.

But here's the worst. Homeless advocacy has been co-opted by the bureaucratic-managerial class, and the promise of Ten Year Plans offer cover to municipalities as they criminalize visible poverty. United States Interagency Council on Homelessness head Philip Mangano should not be allowed to fly around the country posing as some technocratic version of Saint Frances of Assisi.

When mass homelessness was last solved, it was through programs that also expanded access to the middle class and led to thirty years of economic growth and declining inequality. Guaranteed FHA loans. Public Housing. The GI Bill. Work programs to build infrastructure. Regulatory government that curbed corporate and individual greed.

The real solutions haven't changed.

Homelessness will never be defined away, and those of us who care about homelessness as the extreme and dehumanizing result of poverty and inequality need to be clear about who's side we're on. The politics of illusion might look good from a distance, but from the perspective of the street, they don't do shit.

1 comment:

Bill said...

You correctly reveal that the organized ten year plans are dealing in lies as their plan to build political will. A recent visit with a Seattle Dept. Head led to our hearing that "focus groups" are being used to determine actions and what gets said by electeds. Truth is not the option of choice; it is spin that guides. The problem, of course, is that spin is producing negative results and actual loss. A new cadarie of electeds is needed who refuse to succumb to "how will I stay in office?" Leaders (sic) like Nickels simply seem to need their names in the press every day for some new initiative (grocery bags, street closures to just "chill," sweeps, and so on). The obvious, working to end homelessness -- something so core to every household as to be understandable by even the youngest family member -- well, this escapes DAILY attention. The ballot is the only remedy, and candidates who will focus on the most basic need of all.