In more than 30 years of involvement with the issue of homelessness, I have heard a lot of politicians talk about the issue and I’ve seen homelessness get worse and worse. It is time for the electorate to educate those who wish to be elected. To do that, we need to prepare ourselves for the political doublespeak regarding homelessness.
It is important to remember that homelessness is a complex issue. People who are homeless may be struggling with past trauma, untreated mental health issues or substance abuse issues, or they may just be struggling with the high cost of living in Seattle. To build and manage a sufficient stock of affordable housing will require considerably more dollars than we have raised thus far. And while we are waiting for our leaders to have the foresight and courage to provide that housing, we have to find ways of protecting people who have no homes.
That means homeless shelters, day centers and hygiene centers. We also need drug treatment programs and community mental health services.
There are three primary strategies politicians offer to voters on the issue of homelessness:
1. To be honest with the voters and tell them that, to end homelessness, they are going to have to come up with a lot more money from the tax base. This approach is rarely used. It will require creativity and courage to find ways to tax those who can most afford it.
2. Blame someone, either homeless people or the providers of care to homeless people or compassionate people in general for the presence of homelessness. The problem with this approach is that it solves nothing and often leads to criminalizing homelessness. The use of police, courts and jails is very expensive and as a source of low-income housing, jail is much more expensive than decent housing.
3. Use techno-babble. This has been the favorite approach of Seattle politicians. The gist of this approach is to talk about using the current funds in a more “targeted” or “efficient” way. It leads to actions that take money away from one area of need and place it in another, a sort of “whack a mole” approach that leads nowhere.
Here are some favorite techno-babble themes:
• Move money from shelters to housing.
To someone who is far removed from the pain of homelessness, this might sound like a good idea because shelters are temporary solutions and housing is permanent, but shelters, tiny house villages, tent cities all provide desperately needed protection of life and health for people who are homeless.
• Provide greater supervision of service providers. The subtext of this sentiment comes from the “blame somebody” approach, blaming homelessness on those who are trying to do something about it. Anybody who bothers to think about this for more than a second would wonder why greater supervision from a group of politicians who have little or no experience in working with homelessness is going to help in any significant way.
• Provide more case managers. Some homeless people need case managers but many — if not most — need either higher incomes or lower rent, and case managers cannot manufacture either. They can only help their clients better compete for limited opportunities. Talk of case managers as a primary solution is often a polite way of blaming homeless people for their lack of housing, implying that if only they had managed their lives better they wouldn’t be homeless.
There are more of these “solutions” but you get the idea. The argument is that if we just rearrange the deck chairs on this Titanic problem everything will be fixed. We just need the brilliant insight of some politician who has absolutely no demonstrable history with or understanding of the issue. When candidates come to your door or when they speak in forums, ask them about homelessness and listen carefully to their response.
Let’s find and support candidates who want to end homelessness and are willing to risk the wrath of the thoughtless to provide real solutions.
Rich Gamble is a pastor at Keystone United Church of Christ and Executive Director of the Justice Leadership Program.
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