HOMELESSNESS IN AMERICA: What Works, What Doesn’t

Last night my wife and I attended a meeting hosted by Project ID to discuss the City of Spokane’s proposed new homeless shelter.  Several hundred people packed the building to air their concerns. Representatives from the city’s homeless planning committee began the evening with a presentation detailing their vision for the new shelter and then opened up the floor for comments. Comments were heated at times, but everyone, including advocates for the homeless, had their say.

The majority of concerns focused on the location of the new shelter, which will be sited right next door to Project ID, which is a non-profit organization serving the needs of people with developmental disabilities. Concerns about the new shelter’s close proximity and the lack of the non-profit organization’s voice in the site selection planning process were highlighted by Project ID staff, their volunteers, dozens of advocates for the developmentally disabled, several people with developmental disabilities themselves, as well as many parents, guardians and other concerned citizens. Neighborhood residents were equally upset that their voices and opinions were also ignored in the city’s homeless shelter site selection planning process.

Common sense would tell us that no neighborhood in the Spokane community would welcome a 120 bed homeless shelter positioned right next to a school, or a day care center, or in a neighborhood full of kids and working class families.  Common sense would also tell us that placing such a shelter right next door to an organization dedicated to serving our area’s most vulnerable population is a very bad idea.  But apparently, city planners don’t have much common sense.

One homeless advocate who spoke in favor of the shelter talked about “freedom”, i.e. “the freedom to be homeless”.  Well sir, an individual’s freedom to be homeless stops when he/she infringes on another person’s freedom.  A homeless person’s freedom stops when he/she defecates on somebody’s lawn,  or urinates in front of a business, or, as happened a couple weeks ago, throws a brick through the window of Project ID because staff would not allow a particular homeless person into the building to use the bathrooms.

A rational person would assume that any program serving the homeless population would have as it’s main goal the reduction and eventual elimination of homelessness. In other words, a successful homeless program would not be focused on creating more beds and shelters, more free meals, more handouts of resources such as sleeping bags, shoes, coats and tents, etc.  A homeless program’s success should be measured by how many shelter beds are being left empty and how many meals are no longer needed because people no longer need such services. The goal of any program for the homeless should be to reduce and eventually eradicate homelessness, not empower people to remain homeless and facilitate growing the homeless population.

Unfortunately, the City of Spokane, like so many other cities in America, has chosen a model of service that encourages homelessness.  Just as creating a needle exchange program does NOT solve the drug problem, creating laundry services, meal programs, and/or stacking beds from floor to ceiling to shelter more people overnight does NOT solve the homeless problem.  So let’s briefly examine homelessness in America, and maybe we can come up with some common sense long range solutions.

FACT:  During the Great Depression, unemployment in America reached 25% and the homeless population hit an all-time high at just over 2 million people.  New Deal work programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps helped to ease homelessness during the worst of the depression and built a lot of the infrastructure in our National Parks.  WWII and the prosperous decades that followed all but eliminated homelessness as a major problem in America.  Today’s economy is nothing like the depression of the 1930’s, yet we are once again experiencing a growing homeless population.

According to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress , “On a single night in 2018, roughly 553,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States. About two-thirds (65%) were staying in sheltered locations—emergency shelters or transitional housing programs—and about one-third (35%) were in unsheltered locations such as on the street, in abandoned buildings, or in other places not suitable for human habitation.”

The 2018 HUD report may underestimate the actual numbers, but the report does find that the number of homeless people staying in un-sheltered locations has increased for the past three years in a row in spite of the increased availability of community services and overnight shelters. It would seem that providing more shelters and dedicating more services for the homeless has NOT contributed to a reduction in the homeless population.

So what’s really going on?

First, we need to understand that there are several causes and categories of homeless people.  Homelessness is not exclusive to any particular race or gender.  However, there are more white people in the homeless population than any other race.  There are also more males in the homeless population than females.  There are unaccompanied youth, entire families, and veterans who are homeless.  There are those who have fallen on hard times and just need a helping hand to get back on their feet and there are drug addicts, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, and those who actually prefer or choose to live the homeless lifestyle.

Obviously, there is no simple one size fits all solution to the homeless problem. But there are strategies and methods that can reduce homelessness just as there are well intentioned, (albeit misguided), programs that have exasperated the problem.  Identifying what works and what doesn’t work is key to solving the problem of homelessness.

Homeless advocates attribute much of the problem to the escalation in rent prices as vacancy rates shrink and poorer neighborhoods become gentrified. That means affordable housing and programs that help people persevere through a  period of unemployment or medical disability (either temporary or permanent) is a key component of any solution.  But cheaper housing and free health care alone won’t solve the problem.

Homeless camp under the Maple Street bridge – Spokesman Review photo.

If we really want to solve this problem, we must reduce ALL of the factors that lead to homelessness. We must tackle drug and alcohol addiction and both legal and illegal chemical dependency.  Legalizing brain cell depleting addictive mind altering drugs for “recreational” use or providing clean needles for addicts has led to more homelessness, NOT less.  Over prescribing opioids and anti-depression medications for people experiencing the normal stresses of life or relatively minor aches and pains has led to more homelessness, NOT less.  Drugs that superficially treat the symptoms of mental illness but do nothing to actually cure the disease, and in many cases make things worse, have led to more homelessness, NOT less.  The simple fact is that any type of substance abuse or addiction often leads people to unemployment, and eventually, if not mitigated, makes those afflicted unemployable.

A person cannot simply be given a pill or imbibe a substance that will cure all their problems or smooth out the rough edges of life.   Public education must quit focusing on promoting feeling good about yourself despite your many flaws.  The goal of education should not be to promote “self esteem”, but return to teaching historical realities and the truth about the potential difficulties people will likely face in this world.

Our children must NOT be given the false expectation that they deserve to experience smooth sailing, or can go where they want to go and be whatever they want to be without lifting a finger to get there.   Our young people should be equipped with the tools they will need to give them the best chance to overcome the obstacles they should expect to face in this life.  Such tools include a strong work ethic, a sense of morality, responsibility for one’s own behavior and accountability for one’s actions.  Students need practice solving problems and overcoming obstacles. They should NOT be coddled and praised simply for being.

Medieval diseases are re-emerging among he homeless population

Homelessness is nothing to be celebrated.  It is an enemy to be defeated.  Unsanitary living conditions in many of our cities, including Spokane, are leading to the re-emergence of medieval diseases once thought nearly eradicated.  Plague and typhus and other infectious illnesses are spreading among the homeless.  Tackling the problem will require some tough short term choices while making long term commitments towards effective and lasting solutions.

Do we know what we are doing?  Maybe, maybe not.

 

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