October 17, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 42

Community & Editorial

If we really want to end homelessness in King County, here are three simple solutions

by: Timothy Harris , Executive Director

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Is the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County working? If success is measured by the number of homeless people in shelters, the answer is no. Since 2006, the first full year of the plan, that number has risen by 7 percent.

The numbers of unsheltered people have risen even more dramatically. In 2012, the One Night Count found 2,594 people outdoors in King County after the shelters were full. This mind-numbing figure represents a 33 percent increase over 2006. In Seattle alone, the numbers are still up by 17 percent.

The late-January street survey, while imperfect, remains the best barometer we have. Despite the efforts of many, we are losing ground.

In recent years, we’ve seen reductions to the federal program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the state’s Disability Lifeline and the elimination of General Assistance – Unemployable. When the budget knives are out, it seems the poorest can always bleed a little more.

Policies to stop people sliding further into homelessness are too narrow. “Client care coordination” targets resources to those who most often wind up in jails and hospitals. For example, the Crisis Solutions Center, which opened in August, has 46 beds that are a cheaper, and more effective, alternative to jail or ERs.

With the introduction of the United Way’s 2-1-1 referral line, homeless families now receive help in a more coordinated fashion. CEHKC’s rapid re-housing program promises to fast track families into housing before the experience of homelessness itself sets them back even further.

While the introduction of these programs seems promising, the supply of services is radically out of balance with demand. When a homeless family calls 2-1-1, there is a three-week wait for a first appointment. The typical wait for subsidized housing is three to five years.

Nearly four decades of growing inequality cannot be fixed through efficiencies in human services. A class war being waged, and the poor and their allies are losing. There will be no end to homelessness without us taking sides. This means including homeless people themselves as part of the solution, creating the conditions for engaged community and having the courage to confront injustice.

We need to rethink what ending homelessness looks like. Here are three simple ideas that might give us a different future:

Allow and facilitate market solutions: Many Real Change vendors would be delighted to pay for a 60-square-foot room with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, or even a semiprivate cubicle with a secure locker. Where are the market-based housing alternatives that are affordable to minimum wage workers? Have we regulated affordable housing for the poor out of existence? It’s time to revisit the line between laws that legitimately protect us and those that make it impossible for free markets to meet the huge demand that exists for safe and affordable housing.

Enable survival. Build solidarity: To oppose or barely allow the existence of self-managed tent cities only keeps homelessness hidden. It does not protect the dignity of those who “deserve better.” We have seen the understanding and engagement that occurs when churches and other institutions form partnerships with self-organized homeless folks. We have seen the passion and power generated when ordinary people are part of the solution. Supporting survival encampments is an opportunity for building a cross-class movement that inexpensively meets immediate needs for safety and survival. Homeless people have to be seen as part of the solution and not just as a problem to be managed.

Lobby to the limit: It’s time to look at how much money nonprofits spend on lobbying. It ought to be more. Our first question to any organization that says they are out to end homelessness and not just manage it into perpetuity should be, “Let’s look at your budget!” Nonprofit organizations that take the 501(h) election are allowed to spend 20 percent of their budget on grassroots lobbying for the first $500,000, and 15 percent for every $500,000 after that, up to a total of one million dollars annually.  Doing good work is not enough. We also have to ensure justice for all people.

What would our work to end homelessness look like if human-service organizations, the 800-pound gorillas, were each spending their millions annually on executing a organizing strategy and persuading the big foundations to do the same? If our laws allowed the private sector to meet market demands for housing affordability? If we embraced homeless survival encampments as opportunities to build power and community?

What then?

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