Ending Homelessness Together #5 — “Can’t We Make Them Go Away?”
I knew we were in trouble. When the director of parks was asked by a city councilmember, “What do you think we should do about homelessness?,” she answered, “Make them go away.” Where was the leadership? The councilmember was asking staff and the staff member was throwing up her hands.
Increasingly, there is a sense of frustration in communities that are impacted by growing numbers of people living without homes. People express the same feelings over and over: The housing is too expensive. If you can’t afford to live here you shouldn’t be here. There is not enough funding to support social programs. Police don’t do anything. Nonprofit providers only attract more homeless people. We can’t build or locate homeless people near my property, that’s not safe. We already spend too much money on “those people.” Can’t we just make them go away?
All of the concerns expressed are genuine, real, and understandable. People see a persistent problem, and it seems as though nothing works to solve it.
There is no answer to the question “what do we do about ‘the homeless’”. Because “the homeless” don’t exist. Each person without a home has a simple, straightforward, and very clear solution — they need a permanent home. As a social grouping, homeless people have thousands of reasons for their lack of housing that include economics, lack of family ties, mental health problems, or misuse of alcohol and other drugs, etc. What they all have in common, is they have no place to live. So, if you want to help homeless people, give them a place to live. To do this, we have to start seeing people without homes as members of our community who, for one reason or another, have not been able to be successful in our housing market.
Where more and more cities are stumbling is that they are looking for short term answers and quick fixes. There is nothing wrong with outreach, storage lockers, day centers, warming or cooling centers, shelters, or transitional housing per se. However, what is clearly wrong is the belief that any of these interventions solves the problem. If a person with an alcohol problem attends an AA meeting, are they sober? These partial efforts are VERY expensive, and without coordination, they don’t work.
Each of these efforts is an intervention toward the solution — housing. And, any city or county effort that isn’t establishing a clear pipeline into permanent housing is not actually trying to solve the problem — they are giving jobs and funding to providers. Then, we must ask, are the providers coordinating their actions toward permanent housing? Does each person they work with have a clear plan to become housed? If not, homelessness will persist and grow.
Permanent housing does not have to be new construction, or even within your city limits. Not all homeless people can or should live on their own in their own unit. Each person has different needs, capabilities, earning potential and resources. One size does not fit more than one person. But, each person MUST have a plan that includes where, how much they will pay, with whom, and when can they get there.
The most successful approach is a flexible one that treats each person as an individual who needs a home as fast as possible. Each day’s priority should be answering the question, “Where is my home?” Shelters and transitional housing can be a problem, because people start to feel too at home in them. So, that question has to still be asked every day. Choices are critical, because you can’t force someone home — it simply won’t work. This focus on individualized services is expensive — for the first couple of years, it’s about $20,000 per person above and beyond the cost of rent and other basic needs. But, what are the costs of repeated trips to the emergency room? What are the costs of police, lawyers, courts, and jails as people run around the punishment circle? What are the costs of lost business, neighborhood clean-ups, park clean-ups, and a feeling of a loss of safety and community? If you add it up, these costs far exceed $20,000 a year per person.
Let’s be clear. Finding a home takes time. Outreach, shelters and transitional housing allow someone to get off the streets during this time. Charitable efforts like food, clothing, sleeping bags, showers, and laundry make living each day more comfortable, humane, sanitary and safe. There is clearly a place for charity, social services, and process measures — but we can never lose sight of the goal for each and every person — finding a home. And, particularly in California, where we need 3.5 million more units by 2025, the task seems insurmountable. But, we have to remember, most people who are poor, most who have alcohol and drug problems, and most who have mental health issues are living in a home — what are they doing? What does this actual person in front of you need, to find a home, that these other people in a similar situation already have?
Where and why does it work? According to CalMatters, Atlanta and Houston have cut their homeless populations in half by bringing together all the agencies and creating standard tools and expectations. Santa Barbara’s SBACT is committing to taking 100 people off the streets in 2021 using a collective impact approach of bringing nonprofits, businesses, churches, government programs, volunteers, and leaders who are homeless themselves all rowing in the same direction.