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?