Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Toward a Public Policy Ending Homelessness

Below is the entire text which was sent to Multnomah County decision makers about the homeless. It will be released in sections over the next month on this blog. 

Not a single city in the United States* has solved their most difficult social problem: homelessness.  And this despite federal and local committees and many solutions proposed and tried.  In most cities, homelessness has not been significantly reduced, and we have greater homelessness than we have had before, despite our best efforts to relieve or hide the problem.

*Except perhaps Salt Lake City, but we are still waiting for a final tally

I.                   What is the Homeless Problem?
Before we understand why homelessness is still an issue, we must understand why homelessness is a problem, and why most cities see it as a problem.

A.      A Mundane Emergency Crisis
A few years ago, I was at a meeting about emergency crisis preparedness and I spoke to a Red Cross worker, who had been trying to prepare different communities for the different regions.  He didn’t know who I was (and I still can’t remember his name), but I asked him, “What is the number one emergency crisis that could hit Multnomah County?”  His response was, “The emergency crisis that Multnomah County faces every day is homelessness… but I don’t think that’s what you are asking.”  It wasn’t, but it should have been. 

Recently, the mayor of Portland and Los Angeles declared homelessness an “emergency crisis”, but we have lived with this crisis for such a long time, we don’t have the drive to get ourselves worked up for it.
If an emergency, such as an earthquake or hurricane hit our county and left four thousand people homeless, it would make headlines across the nation.  Yet the four thousand people who are homeless make no headlines at all.  But we should recognize that homelessness has all the hallmarks of an emergency crisis, without a dramatic event.

92 percent of all homeless women have been physically or sexually assaulted.  (National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, http://www.vawnet.org/applied-research-papers/print-document.php?doc_id=558 )

90 percent of all homeless men and 100 percent of all homeless women suffer from PTSD (Australian/New Zealand Psychiatry  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11127626 )

Those who experience homeless are a third to a fourth more likely to die young.
(Care of the Homeless, University of Tennessee Health Science Center) http://www.aafp.org/afp/2014/0415/p634.pdf

Those who experience chronic homelessness cost the public between 30 and 50 thousand dollars per homeless person per year.   (US Interagency Council on Homelessness-- http://usich.gov/population/chronic)

B.      A Social War
Dr. Susan Fiske, a leading sociologist, in a major study dealt with public emotional response to different social groups.  She generalized these responses to be “Envy” (e.g. for those who are wealthy or professionals), “Pity” (e.g. for the obviously handicapped) “Pride” (e.g. for housewives) and “Disgust” (e.g. for undocumented immigrants).   She developed a chart indicating the position of certain groups relative to each other.  She explained in a lecture at UCLA that she wasn’t able to place the homeless, as a social group, on the chart, because the American response to the homeless was so overwhelmingly in the “disgust” category, that the group would have skewed the rest of the chart.  She said that the common perception of homelessness is that they are a “pile of garbage”—less than human and personally offensive to be close to.  (Envy Up, Scorn Down, by Susan Fiske; Varieties of DE-Humanization, lecture given to UCLA by Susan Fiske, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f--dDx0q6so  ).

According to the study by Dr. Fiske, the American public have these preconceptions of the homeless:
-Homeless people are not interacted with by the mass of the population
-They do not have a relatable mind
-They are considered less competent than other groups
-They are contemptable
-They are disgusting, as if they have a communicable disease.
-They are the equivalent of a “pile of garbage”
-One homeless person is worth less than five “normal” people
-The homeless are being dehumanized by the average American

This public perception is easily seen.  A majority of comments on Anna Griffin’s articles on homelessness have to do with how disgusting the homeless are.  There is an assumption of criminal action by the homeless, some call them “sociopaths”, while others are just wondering how to get them out of their neighborhood.  A common thread is a lack of any perception that the homeless are fellow citizens of our community.  Rather, it is the assumption that they shouldn’t be in public spaces.  Many feel that their best location is in jail, although the majority of criminal activity that is actually seen is leaving piles of trash.  There is a higher level of complaints about the homeless to the police than other groups, even when criminal activity is taken into account.   (The Oregonian  http://www.oregonlive.com/portland-homeless/ )

What Dr. Fiske shows, however, is that our reasons for finding the homeless disgusting is secondary to their social placement.  The foundational reaction is emotional, and we come up with reasons after the fact. This is why the reasons change to such a degree, but the basic response remains the same—they must be gotten rid of.

If our initial emotional response to the homeless is disgust, then the primary social response is that the homeless is the stranger, those “not one of us.”  This leads to fear, most often irrational fear, and then an assumption of criminal behavior.   Then the police are called with complaints because of the homeless, and they feel that they have to do something, even though they do not have any criminal act they can act upon. 

Eventually the public outcry becomes so much that the homeless are moved from one location to another, which is how a city responds to “piles of garbage.”

C.      Public Poverty
Much of public policy about the homeless deals with the fact that the homeless is the “public face” of poverty in the city, and the more it is seen, the more the reputation of the city or neighborhood is damaged.  This relates to the “broken window” study, which states that if there is structural damage of a small nature, then it draws ever increasing structural breakdown.  It cannot be said, however, that because homelessness exists in public that therefore homelessness must increase, or that there must be slum around the homeless.

The main issue has to do with reputation, which is why homeless sweeps and enforcement of legislation on the books often occur just before public events.  Homeless legislation has more to do with forcing the homeless to hide themselves, rather than to be in the public eye.  The less effective the homeless are at hiding, the more legislation and sweeps there will be.

Businesses are, of course, concerned about poverty being at their doorstep, for if their storefront looks like a slum, or it has individuals whom others are afraid of near their door, then they lose customers.  Neighborhoods are also concerned, because they don’t want to be known as the “slum” of a metropolitan area.

For all these reasons, homelessness is, more often than not, a battle against poverty out in the open, and the attempt to hide it from public sight.

II.                 False Premises toward the Homeless Problem
In order for us to understand what public policy might actually help improve cities with a large homeless population, then we need to understand what assumptions public policy makers might have about the homeless which work against public interest.

A.      The Homeless are Criminals
Many police officers (certainly not all), talk as if the homeless are a “criminal class” and they are just waiting for them to slip up and show their true colors.  This comes from three areas of police experience: 1. That the homeless have a look of guilt when they approach (often not knowing that the face expression of “fear” is the same as “guilt”); 2. That neighbors complain about the homeless more than other groups of people (Often the calls have to do with something the homeless are not involved in); 3. The homeless are criminals when they are illegally sleeping outside, which gives the police license to treat them as criminals.   The homeless feel that the police are their main problem, but that isn’t true.  The police are simply the public face of judgment that the homeless most often see.
The homeless are over-represented in arrests ( Psychiatric Survey: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7641002# )
In a sense, almost all of the homeless are criminals because they are sleeping in illegal locations.  But that is criminalization of a social group, which has been recently declared “unconstitutional” by the Department of Justice.  A large number (but not majority) of the homeless are addicts to drugs or alcohol, but the majority of them are using substances to deal with the stress of living on the street. A study in Baltimore indicated that fewer homeless were violent criminal offenders than other social groups. If the homeless are criminals, it is a social crime, for being a part of the wrong social group.
B.      Causes of Homelessness
It is assumed that the majority of homeless become so because of addiction issues or mental illness. First, that assumes that the majority of the homeless are the chronic homeless (the most obvious homeless population), instead of the majority homeless—families who are experiencing economic hardship and will be housed again in just a few months. 
Recent data has shown that only a minority of the homeless end up on the street due to addiction issues (14 percent) or mental illness.  The main causes of homelessness would be: loss of job,  or being kicked out of one’s apartment or house.  There is greater indication that obvious mental illness and addiction is widespread among the chronic homeless as a result of the extreme stresses of living on the street.
(National Coalition for the Homeless http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/why.html )

C.      The homeless and transients
The word “transient” is often used as synonymous with “homeless”, calling to mind “travelling hobos” of yore.  However, the recent Point in Time Count of Multnomah County shows that the majority of homeless stay in the same city, even the same part of the city, where they became homeless.  There are some homeless who travel around, but that is not the typical homeless population.  Rather, the homeless tend to be conservative about their living area, only moving when they are forced to, and rarely moving out of the area where they used to have a residence, or where they grew up.  The typical homeless person is transient, only if they are forced to.

D.      Centrality of homelessness
Policy makers tend to focus on where the homeless were, not on where they are.  Solutions or centers for the homeless in Multnomah County are often located in downtown Portland.  However, the majority of the homeless are in inner SE Portland, and the homeless population is growing more on the Eastside than anywhere else.  And the majority of homeless in North Portland and in East County are honestly afraid to stay downtown for any length of time, so they disqualify themselves from using the services there.  The Human Solutions answer is better—go to where the homeless are going, and meet their needs there.
E.       Homeless and the job market
It is assumed that many of the homeless are not looking for a job, and that they are lazy.  It is true that some homeless are lazy, just like some housed are lazy.  However, a large population of the homeless already have a job.  Almost all the homeless have spent time looking for work, but gave up after failing for months or years.  When you do not have an address, a regular shower, a phone, an alarm clock or an up-to-date work history, then most employers assume that a homeless person is not a good risk as an employee.
Why is Employment Difficult for the Homeless? National Coalition of the Homeless  http://nationalhomeless.org/issues/economic-justice/ )

F.       Silver bullet
Much of homelessness policy has revolved around finding a single solution to homelessness.  However, the solution to homelessness must be as complex as homeless people themselves.  A single solution always leaves many homeless people out of the public equation.  Giving the homeless apartments doesn’t meet the need of those who have claustrophobia, or PTSD for being around groups of people (although it does give them a place to securely store their belongings).  Tiny houses is a more expensive solution that doesn’t work for the homeless that gather large quantities of items in order to provide security in their lives.  Job training works for those ready to leap into a job, which is not the majority of chronic homeless.  Criminalizing homeless activity is not only unconstitutional, but it doesn’t give the homeless any incentive to solve their own issues.  Any solution must be a multifaceted solution, there is no one answer.

G.     Lifestyle aims
Many public policy makers assume that all of the homeless want or need an apartment, which is the current fad among homeless policy makers.  Wet apartments* is a solution for some, but it seems to not actually reduce homelessness, at least in Multnomah County, and it creates a mini-slum around the housing.  To speak to most homeless as to what they want, their solutions are twofold: to have a place where they can sleep without being harassed, and to have a secure place where they can leave their belongings.  Although these solutions are temporary, they are far less complicated and far less expensive than what public policy makers want to give.  This is partly because the policy makers have more than one goal—helping the homeless isn’t the only issue—but it is also because they assume that the homeless want or need much more than they do.

*Housing for the addicted without needing them to be clean or sober.
H.     Scarce resources
Especially in a county that has 4000+ homeless, it is easy to assume that the cities and county have limited resources to help all of these folks.   That choices have to be made between who the policies can help and who they can’t.  However, part of the problem is that public solutions are often so expensive that they can’t be given to everyone.  But solutions that may seem “half way” are actually better solutions, much cheaper and more broadly accessible to more homeless. 

I.        Management of the homeless
It is assumed that the homeless must be managed by social workers or policy makers.  That the only solutions for the homeless is if the homeless have a “parent” to see them through.  However, it has been shown that the homeless have their own leadership, whom they trust more than government employees, and that this leadership has the organizational knowhow to create solutions for their own community.  These solutions are often not acceptable to the broader city, but that is usually because policy makers are not working with homeless leaders, but working in opposition to the desires of the homeless.   
This assumption comes from the emotional idea that the homeless are incompetent, while there is no evidence that this is true.

III.              Why Is a Solution Out of Our Grasp?

A.      Effective Community Development
Throughout the world, communities, expatriate organizations and nations have been working at community development of their poorest communities.  Over the years, a certain set of principles have been established which have proven to be effective in overcoming poverty in many contexts, both in the third world and in developed nations.
Today, many American cities have thousands of people living in third world poverty, including but not exclusive to the homeless.  Most of these people in deep poverty belong to communities of the poor, they are not just individuals.  The American approach to poverty treats poor people as individual or family units instead of larger communities.  As such, they do not take in the most effective approaches of eradicating poverty, developed throughout the world.  Here are some of the principles shown to work to eradicate poverty:

1.  Although management from governing authority is essential, the solutions and direct leadership of the programs should be directed from the local poverty community.  There must be a partnership between the government and the poverty community.

2. Funding should not be a one-time investment in a community, but an ongoing negotiated long term plan.

3. Success of any program must be determined by the success of goals, beginning with small ones and developing, over time, larger ones. Evaluation of any program should be continuous, both from within the program and from objective outside evaluators.

4. Governance should provide training for partners to keep up successful programs.

5. There should be continuous feedback between governance and community partners, developing a more nuanced program to the needs of the community.
These principles have not been at work among community development of the homeless.  Generally, the American approach has been to separate the homeless from their community, to create personal development apart from peers.  Success is declared because of numbers of individuals moved through the program instead of the development of a whole community.  If a community is developed as a whole, there is a much higher likelihood that homelessness would be reduced or, over time, even eliminated.

(Effective Community Development Programmes:  http://www.effectiveservices.org/images/uploads/Evidence_Review_EffectiveCommunityDevelopment_2010.pdf )
B.      Psychology of Poverty
As mentioned above, there is an assumption that poor people want to immediately be thrust into middle class economic levels.  However, it has been shown that the poor are not able to consider long term, large economic goals, unless they are handed to them.  The poor, generally, are able to consider short term humble goals, because their brain reduces their expectations and self-esteem.  
Most American cities’ approaches to the homeless is to give a few individuals large steps of economic improvement, while not having the resources to help the far majority of those on the same economic level.  This leaves the poor the feeling that escaping poverty has nothing to do with their own ability or with self-reliance, but a more “lottery” mentality of escaping their life of crisis.  If they are lucky enough, if they get placed on the right list, then they will escape poverty with little work on their part.
If there is a clear stair-step to economic development with short but attainable goals, then the homeless would have the confidence to establish their own goals and climb up that staircase at their own time, according to their own confidence bolstered by peers who climbed the same stairway.  If it is not available to everyone, or if economic development requires goals that are by chance (such as shelter that is gender based) or are too large (find low-cost housing and the government will pay for it), then it will be considered a lottery available to those lucky to receive it.

IV.              Stages Toward Solving the Problem
I am not offering a “silver bullet” toward “ending homelessness”.  I am instead making suggestions toward a long-term solution about homelessness.  Many of these directions cannot be completed in a year or two, but neither can solving homelessness. 
The big answer to solving the homeless problem is giving the homeless enough space to create their own solutions.  The homeless, for the most part, are good citizens, wanting to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors.  However, their hands are tied to determining solutions for themselves.  They are prevented by excessive chronic stress, harmful public policy that criminalizes normal behavior, and the inability for their leaders to sit at the table and offer their solutions.  The homeless can do much to improve their own situations, if they would be given the opportunity to.
A.      Changing Public Perception
The main obstacle to a successful policy solution to homelessness is public and local government perception of the homeless and solutions to the homeless.  As long as the public is fearful of the homeless and as long as leaders continue to criminalize homelessness, then the homeless cannot find solutions for themselves.  But this will not change as long as the public do not understand the causes of or solutions to homelessness.

I would recommend a set of classes be offered about homelessness.  There could be a class for those who make public policy, a class for police officers, a class for social workers, a class for church volunteers and a class for high schools.  Presentations can be made at neighborhood association meetings and to city councils, allowing people to ask questions about homelessness and to offer real solutions.  One or two people hired by a city or county to teach at various locations could make a difference in public perception in just two or three years.   The class could cover the life of the homeless, causes of homelessness, community perception and local neighborhood solutions.  For police and social workers, there might be a section about approaching the homeless and offering solutions that would work.   
Local television public service announcements and social media campaigns would also be effective.

B.      Stop Criminalization of Survival Activity
The criminalization of sleeping, sitting, legal activity in public spaces during appropriate times, and establishing campsites do not solve homelessness.  Rather this decreases the options of those who already have few options and increases the stress of our most chronically stressed population.   To tell people to leave a public area when they have no legal or safe place to go is simply bad public policy.  To treat a homeless person like a criminal for doing activity that the housed regularly do legally in their living rooms, is to punish them for not having four walls around them.  To criminalize normal behavior is to increase enmity between the homeless and the local government, which is the opposite of working toward a solution.
Given that part of the medical problem of homelessness is the extremely high stress levels and the PTSD of being homeless, adding more stress to the homeless does not solve the problem, but make it worse.
C.      Homeless Inclusion and Leadership
Real solutions for the homeless will not occur until real homeless people are involved in the solutions.  It has been proven in working with communities of poverty throughout the world that the best solutions are those in which the community of poverty determines themselves and is deeply involved in setting up.  Public policy has been given from the top down to the homeless.  If we are going to create lasting successful solutions, the homeless must be deeply involved.  Here are some ideas toward that long term solution:

1. Survey homeless populations in different parts of the county, asking what they think the short term and long term solutions to homelessness, and to their personal situation might be.  Kristine Smock is the best person to do this task, having already successfully done a number of PIT surveys.
2. Encourage local homeless communities to have their own neighborhood associations.  These associations would be official, would vote for leaders and these leaders could officially represent the homeless to their city, county and other neighborhood associations.
3. Homeless leaders should be given a strong voice at the public policy meetings about the homeless.  They would not just be quiet members, but connected to their communities and have a full voice of what would and wouldn’t work for their communities.
4. Homeless leaders should be made continuing partners, evaluators and workers in solutions for homeless communities.

D.      Stairway of Economic Development
When we recognize that each homeless individual has unique issues, we know that we must have a broad approach with multiple solutions, reducing the stress of most of the homeless, allowing them space so they can create their own solutions.  For the price of one building, multiple sites can be established throughout the county for different purposes, meeting the needs of different kinds of homeless.
1.       Sleep stations—Rather than expect shelters to take on the full burden of all the homeless in an urban area, there should be areas where it is legal for the homeless to sleep.  The homeless should be allowed to choose their own security people to keep the community safe overnight, and they would be given a safe place to sleep during the day.  Each area could be cleared at 8am every morning.
2.       Lockers for belongings—The homeless could be granted lockers to keep their possessions secure, and so they don’t have to carry their bedding and tents with them all day.  The lockers should be combination locks, able to be changed for new users.
3.       Camping: A center for those who wish to camp.  Permanent structures such as hogans, yurts or teepees could be provided, as well as electrical outlets, running water and an outdoor BBQ.  Public bathrooms would also be provided. A community center with showers, a gathering area and laundry facilities could be provided.  There would need to also be some self-policing activity to prevent illegal activity, for if it becomes necessary for the police to make too many arrests, the site would be shut down. The violent or those who sell drugs or alcohol will be kicked out of the facility to go to the sleep station.
4.       Forest camping: A section deep in the forest should be provided for those who suffer from mental disorders, where they fear being around other people.  Training to surviving the winter in that context could be offered.
5.       Parking lot/rest areas: A place for free or inexpensive parking for a limited time (up to six months?), for overnight parking only.  This could be for those living in cars, RVs or other vehicles that
cannot be parked on a public street.  It can be run by homeless or low income leadership.  Each space can provide an electrical outlet, running water and an outdoor BBQ.  There could also be a community center providing showers, a TV/meeting room, and basic survival supplies.
6.       Tent Cities—More homeless-organized tent cities should be established, on private or public land.  If tiny houses could be provided for a permanent structure, that would work well. It would need to be self-sustained, apart from the land.
7.       Job training center—Provide training and employment opportunities for all who are homeless, including the opportunity of granting business licenses, and insurance for street entrepreneurs.
8.       Shelters—Women’s shelters and couple’s shelters should be provided.
9.       Apartment offers—JOIN should still be obtaining apartments for the homeless, but they should focus on those who are able to obtain work and function as their own payees.

These locations and offers should be created without permission of neighborhood associations, or enforcement by normative building codes.  Homelessness is an emergency crisis, thus needing emergency solutions.  In as much as the code can be followed, it should be.  However, acknowledgement of community concern should be noted and compromise with the neighborhood associations should be accommodated, as long as the locations aren’t moved to another neighborhood.  Also, each neighborhood should be given training about homelessness and how to deal with the homeless.

E.       Low education Social Workers
There is a deep need for one on one counselling and social work for almost all the homeless, which overwhelms the current crop of social workers.  The city could provide classes to be low-educated social workers, able to walk a person through the economic development plan of the city, and helping an individual find where they fit in the plan.  If the training is offered for free, volunteers could take on some of this work.

F.       Local Resourcing

Financing always a problem, especially when it comes to hiring staff.  However, it is possible to increase staff through volunteers.  The local governments can call upon churches, colleges, community service organizations and the homeless to volunteer at new sites, to help clean up and to do maintenance.   There are many who want to help the homeless, and unused private land might be offered for this purpose.  Requests upon the public might be made to help the local governments provide assistance to the needy. 

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