As our 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness nears the end of its second year, many of us feel a great need to reassess. While the rhetoric of no longer managing homelessness — of working instead toward its demise — is enormously attractive, there is great fear that the federal strategy may be a diversion from the real issues.
Here in Seattle, the plan has clearly created additional support for housing and services at all levels of government. While many people fear that this commitment comes at the expense of support for emergency shelter, what we’ve seen so far looks pretty close to progress.
Here’s the problem. Local resources are finite, and the issue is national. While Democrats have more power in D.C. now than has been the case for 12 years, the reality there is complicated, and action on housing can be measured in baby steps.
This means, basically, that all progress is local. In the absence of a strong grassroots lobby for increased housing and services for the poor, further gains in support are likely to stall with the next economic downturn.
This is the problem with policies that are driven from the top. At some point, people turn around, and no one is behind them.
A United Way of King County poll reveals homelessness to be the number-three concern of local residents, behind schools and traffic. This is good. Too bad nobody’s organizing them.
Missing the point
Real solutions to homelessness begin with true recognition of the causes.
Over the late 1970s and ’80s, the numbers of homeless people across America tripled and quadrupled. In the last decade alone, despite Seattle’s strong commitment to putting people first, we’ve seen the local numbers double.
Globalization and other changes in the economy made large numbers of people who lack technical skills superfluous to the workforce. Wages declined, along with the bargaining power of labor.
A variety of policies turned housing into a speculative commodity that more and more of us can no longer afford. Meanwhile, the federal government spends three times as much on housing-related tax breaks for homeowners as it does on Section 8 vouchers and public housing combined.
Finally, the policy of bankrupting government with a permanent war economy and tax breaks to the wealthy has been very effective in undermining whatever will exists to mitigate the harsh realities of the marketplace. The “safety net” is in shreds, and more so all the time.
And this has become normal. Homelessness and poverty in America is allowed to exist because we have been convinced that poor people are responsible for their own degradation. They are seen as lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and undeserving. And that lets us off the hook.
Given this, the fact that few people seem keen on welcoming the poor and homeless as their neighbors should surprise no one.
Yet, weirdly, our discussion takes place mostly within the parameters that have been deemed acceptable to the Bush administration. This, perhaps, is Philip Mangano’s greatest achievement. The colossal failure of moral and political imagination that is federal housing policy has been successfully reframed as a local issue.
Homelessness has been demoted, and is no longer discussed as an issue of social and economic justice. It is merely a matter of technocratic legerdemain.
Toward a reality-based solution
There are many parts of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness that are easy to support. The needs of many homeless people are more humanely and cost-effectively met by housing with services than through a patchwork of shelters, jails, and emergency rooms. This is an old idea that has fresh currency and broad political backing.
Additionally, we need to stop the use of shelters as a convenient dumping ground for every other system: hospital recovery rooms, jails and prisons, foster care, and mental health systems. It will take resources to fix what’s broken there, but we need to start.
We can all get behind these priorities, but we must go beyond them as well. We can create the space for a broader vision of what is possible as we build grassroots support for these goals.
We need to find the courage and clarity of vision to organize for deeper solutions.
Meanwhile, the criminalization of behaviors associated with extreme poverty — panhandling, sleeping and eating outdoors, public urination — is on the upswing. So is homelessness.