After President Trump bullied his way through the West Coast a few weeks ago, blaming cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco for making sleeping on the streets too attractive, a friend asked, “Is there a city in America that gets homelessness right?”
Good question. Some people — not named Donald Trump — would say New York and Boston. These cities have decades-old right to shelter laws that peg the availability of supportive housing and emergency shelter to their annual point-in-time count.
This means that while unsheltered homelessness in these cities is low, their sheltered counts are higher. Most of us would say that’s a good thing. Fewer people suffer openly on the streets, and more people have access to services.
Both of these cities lean heavily into Housing First: the notion that recovery from the trauma of homelessness is best accomplished with a roof over one’s head.
And yet, neither city can avoid the triage approach that typifies homeless services in America.
If you are a member of a sympathetic population, like families, youth or veterans, or your risk assessment scores point toward extreme vulnerability, you get prioritized for housing. If not, well, you wait, and wait, and you probably wait some more.
Until recently, most people would have said Salt Lake City gets it right. That’s the place that put Housing First for chronically homeless people at the center of their policy and became famous for nearly eliminating homelessness among those most at risk.
Meanwhile, homelessness among the other 85 percent of those without housing rose, and the results showed up on the streets. The frustration that ensued led to Utah adopting well-worn criminalization strategies that, while emotionally satisfying for some, always make things worse.
So file Salt Lake City under “Magic Bullet Misfire.”
The common thread here is that all of these cities, like every city in America, are coping with both rising housing costs and decades of federal and state disinvestment in human services and housing.
But if there is one city that gets it right — in terms of innovation, continued investment, listening to homeless people, and developing cutting edge strategies that inspire the nation — it might be Seattle.
Seattle more or less invented Housing First. The 1811 Eastlake wet housing program for chronic homeless alcoholics, founded 20 years ago, was initially derided as “bunks for drunks” and fought by local business interests. Now, it has become the new “common sense.”
That program has led to improvements in public health and proven itself half as costly as the alternative. Their approach has become an influential national model and redefined how we approach homelessness and recovery.
A robust network of local housing providers has, through best practices evolved from years of experience, continually improved their success at moving people from homeless to housed.
The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) has pioneered new approaches to poverty crime, offering access to treatment and services as an alternative to jail. More than 60 communities across the nation have adopted some version of the LEAD approach, and founder Lisa Daugaard was recognized last week with a MacArthur Genius award.
Self-managed sanctioned encampments and the tiny houses movement, a homeless-led survival response to massive unsheltered homelessness in our area, have provided a community-based alternative to rogue camping that offers increased dignity and safety for residents.
As these have evolved, the city has built these alternatives into the city’s continuum of care, integrating access to services and supportive housing into the approach. This, again, has become a model for other cities.
Community-based organizations such as Real Change, Facing Homelessness and now the Block Project, have knitted caring networks into the fabric of Seattle, offering ways for people to “Just Say Hello” and build moments of connection into their daily lives.
And yet, while all of this success and innovation is necessary, it is not sufficient. The root problem is that housing costs too much, and steady employment at a livable wage eludes too many.
To channel Bernie Sanders, as long as three people have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of Americans, and the top 1 percent have more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, charity will never be able to keep up.
The real solution to homelessness is economic justice, and we have yet to get that right.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
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Read the full October 2 - 8 issue.
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