Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gullible Isn't In The Dictionary

Not long ago a friend described how hard it was for her to convey what's wrong with Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness. How can I help them understand, she asked, when no one wants to hear it? Could you write about that?

Sure, but lets start with the real problem. The reason it's so hard to explain is that people want to believe it so bad.

People want to think that homelessness can be ended with better data, smarter services, carefully targeted housing programs, and inter-bureaucratic cooperation. Ending homelessness has become the preoccupation of the well-connected and powerful. Government officials from the President of the United States to the Seattle City Council's head of the Human Services and Public Safety Committee to the Director of the Office of Housing can all regularly be heard declaring their commitment to this epic cause.

This can seem quite encouraging.

The philanthropic community, from Bill and Melinda Gates right on down to small family foundations, has largely adopted support of the Ten Year Plan paradigm as a guiding principle for their giving. We witness moving displays of good intention when hundreds of volunteers turn out at the mega help-the-homeless fairs that are organized by government, big philanthropy, and corporate supporters. These offer tangible evidence of people being helped, albeit in mostly small ways. Human service providers want to get something done and they want to do it on the terrain they know and understand without unnecessarily offending anyone. Churches and temples and mosques are stretching to provide what often amount to token efforts at housing and services.

The newspapers regularly print the columns and stories generated by HUD and the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. The New York Times recently reported that chronic homelessness is down by 30%. The definitions are narrowed. The data is managed. Glossy declarations of victory are published to market the good news.

Ending Homelessness will not be easy, goes the refrain, but with enough political will, hard won resources, and smart planning, we'll make it happen. It's the right thing to do. It makes fiscal sense, and it's humane. There is a movement to end homelessness, it begins with the President, and one is either part of the solution or sitting irrelevantly on the sidelines.

Little political space exists in which alternatives are discussed or criticism is taken seriously. The Ten Year Plan is where the resources are, and it is where and how the game is played. Dissent from the paradigm occurs almost entirely at the margins and with limited effectiveness.

All of the big shots are in the game. Given a choice between standing with the big shots or with those who are at the margins, most people go with the big shots.

We're forgetting something.

The people we care about — the people whose homelessness we want to end — are not the big shots. They are not even the people the big shots typically lose much sleep over. They are the losers. They have been mostly written off, and their needs are not being met.

Ten years is a magic number, and it's a long time to wait. Meanwhile, The streets are getting meaner and homeless people are left out in the cold.

Portland — the nation's success story with a reported 68% decrease in chronic homelessness — has about 1,000 people who are literally on the streets. Their ongoing homeless sweeps and aggressive enforcement of the no sit-lie ordinance by police and private security have little to do with helping anyone. These policies just deepen the misery of those whose options are limited almost beyond comprehension.

In Seattle — a city widely regarded as one of America's great bastions of liberalism — the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is practically the official state religion and the usual pieties are in abundant supply. And yet, the numbers of people counted outside our filled to overflowing emergency shelter system are greater than ever.

We too have turned on the most vulnerable. All homeless campers are treated as one tribe: they are trespassers and criminals who are out of place. They are drug injecting, trash piling, urine peeing, vectors of crime, disease, and disorder who must be rounded up and "helped" into the shelters that have no room and are being avoided for good reason.

The foreclosure crisis has brought new eddies of economic vulnerability ever more deeply into the working and middle class, and a new wave of homelessness is being created in their wake. The southern homeless encampments in particular are teeming with new residents, many of whom never thought they'd be fighting to survive outdoors in a tent.

When the facts and the facts as they are broadly understood are so radically at odds, vertigo ensues and brains shut down. That's the best time to start asking questions. Here's a few to get us started.

How is homelessness being ended when, here in Seattle, at least three affordable housing units have been lost to market forces for every one that has been brought online through the Ten Year Plan?

How does it makes sense to eliminate homeless encampments and all nighttime sleeping in public space when 2,600 people are out in the cold in January? Does anyone really believe that 35 new beds is an adequate response?

Why does the emphasis on creating housing preclude expanding shelter to meet the need that exists? Why does the long-term and questionable assumption of "ending homelessness" trump the immediate business of alleviating misery?

Why is it that almost all cities with Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness liberally employ the stick of increased repression and criminalization of visible poverty along with the carrot of housing with services? Why are the institutionally connected "homeless advocates" uniformly silent on this issue?

How can homelessness be ended when the inequality rates that have risen for more than thirty years show no sign of slowing? How can homelessness be ended when we write off the new economy's poor and chronically unemployed as prison fodder and human trash through systemic neglect and criminalization?

Who the hell can live on a $600 monthly TANF check? Or a $900 social security payment? Why do food stamps keep getting cut when all the evidence is that hunger is increasing? Why are drugs so damn easy to get and so heavily penalized? Why is effective treatment so hard for poor people to access?

Why does President George W. Bush, the man who consistently cuts taxes for the wealthiest while slashing systems of support for the poor, eagerly support Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness?

How do the relatively paltry new federal spending on homeless programs and services make up for the decades of disinvestment in public housing?

Since when have big institutions and governmental bodies ever done anything because "it's just the right thing to do?" Whose interests are served when we pretend to end homelessness but, in reality, don't even come close?

Why do Ten Year Plan obsessed organizations like the 800-pound advocacy gorilla National Alliance to End Homelessness support policy positions that narrow and limit definitions of who gets counted as homeless? Who does this help most? Homeless people, or bureaucrats who need to show and claim success?

How have we come to the point where the appearance of ending homelessness is widely confused with the real thing? Whose interests are served in this?

Where is the grassroots pressure base? Since when have poor and working people ever won anything without a fight?

What would an effective movement for broad economic security look like, and how is that different from what we now have? What's standing in our way?


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tim.

Diane Nilan said...

Questions that beg answers...and will likely blow away like litter in an alley...

Mitch Snyder must have been sitting over your shoulders you pounded out your litany.

I'd suggest this column be linked by every blogger who cares, and forwarded to every newspaper who would give it space, and sent for comment to every HUD-funded shelter, and distributed to Congress and their staff...well you get the idea...

Great job putting the questions on the table, Tim. I will use your words to evoke the public discussion that needs to happen.


Bruce from Accordion Noir said...

I like to think we can explain things if we just clarify what proponents of the "Ten Year" approach are doing.

Originally it was called the Ten Minute Plan to End Homelessness: If we can just count who we want, why do we need ten years?

If we count less people as homeless (like excluding kids and families, so they don't get extra help to go to school, my favorite) then we've "reduced" homelessness, and it didn't cost us anything but our consulting fee. We're gonna be rich!

If people in jail don't count as homeless (or unemployed), we give the poor a choice, "Leave town or go to jail." We'll have eliminated homelessness, at only twice the cost of creating actual housing. E-Z economics - time to build a new jail.

Saying it will take ten years is a smoke-screen, meant so we can't criticise them until they're done. "Give me the treasury for ten years please, no questions." Sounds like a plan.

I think that's pretty clear. Focus groups liked their version better though, until they found out they were being lied to.

Anonymous said...

I also appreciate questions that too few are asking, so thanks. But that's never enough for me. True, big name players are used to remedies that mirror what works "in the real world," and have yet to learn that the "real world" in which they function is a rigged game so that more-often-than-not, they can win big. We call that success societally, but in truth it is a failed plan to truly address the scope of folks who have no reason to bow to power since power continually steps on their throats. Ten Year Plans have been stolen, including locally. The evidence is plain in the very structure: A Governing Board that meets but 4x/year, and a Consumer (sic) Advisory Board that can lament and recommend all it wants but that does not have one single recommendation put into action by the Interagency. Instead, the planning proceeds by those who think they know better, and as you say Tim, those who live this crisis nightly get less than short shrift. We heard we'd have a landlord liaison process and it has taken longer than squeezing out a diamond to make it happen. We heard we needed coordinated entry, that we needed political will, that we needed shelter, and we got new terminology each month with nothing as radically advanced as giving people on the streets a safe place to sleep. It doesn't take a big shot to suggest that ending homelessness is about putting a roof over every bed. To be fair, I'm sure a good percentage of the big shots are truly frustrated as well. But the problem with their frustration is that they've learned to not trust those they think know less; that is, in this case, those in the midst of the crisis. Let's begin to reclaim the 10 Year Plan piece-by-piece. My first suggestion is that Consumer (sic) Advisory,... it ought to be renamed the CEH Advisory Committee. Then, half of every Governing Board meeting and half of every Interagency meeting must be devoted to the agenda set by the CEH Advisory. Right now, nothing even approaches that happening. The overarching tool that justifies this is what I call "listening." It is not being practiced. From the Mayor of Seattle right through the nonprofits and private entities, listening is an "OK, I hear you" experience followed by, "that's good to hear from you but this is where we are going instead." Where we are going instead, however, is to hell in a handbasket, collectively. The collecive voice of those at risk will either be heard or we will bleed money and time and valued neighbors indefinitely with the annual counts going up, up, and up. This can't wait for some collective idea or collective protest; it must begin by dismantling and reinstalling, just like we'd treat dry rot or bad plumbing. And the wonder will be that those at risk will bring far more resources toward their own renewal and re-housing than we will ever provide "doing it to/for them." Lovely questions again commended, but at the last, useless. Change it one piece at a time. Let the credit mongers take their credit (except maybe Seattle's granddaddy of credit takers). But it is long past time to get something better going, and it will only happen by a shift that will not come from the top by itself. There is enough intelligence in these leaders, movers, and shakers, that when the band starts playing, they'll get onto the wagon.

Anonymous said...

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

Joseph Goebbels

Homelessness is decreasing! Poverty ceases to exist,
The Ten Year Plan really works!

Say three times and click your heels!

With deep appologiez to Dorthy..

Michael Garcia said...

Nicely summarized, The extreme frustration I have felt being a CAC member beggars description, but worse still, my experience as one of the two token homeless people on the Governing Board of the CEH..... These people do not want to hear anything the homeless have to say as they might then be expected to act on some very basic issues ( such as sheltering those 2,600 people!) and that might interfer with the Grand schemes they spend there meetings gassing about.