January 22, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 4

Director's Corner

It is not so much a “plan to end homelessness” as it is a defining framework.

By Timothy Harris , Executive Director

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Mark Putnam, the newly appointed director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, is, by all reports, committed, smart, experienced, passionate and well-liked. He has everything it might take to restore credibility to a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness that has, in many ways, failed to deliver. 

And yet, I’m not holding my breath. 

Here’s why. Putnam is just one guy. The plan is a system. The plan flows from national level policy, is enforced by federal funding requirements and is supported down the line by state and local government bureaucracies, huge foundations not known for their challenges to the distribution of wealth, and large, mostly risk-averse nonprofits that have little to no investment in system change.

It is not so much a “plan to end homelessness” as it is a defining framework. The plan is an ideology, and it supports system maintenance, not system change. The plan defines homelessness as a human services delivery problem, and not as the logical outcome of radical inequality.

The plan has no words to describe the broken system that reliably manufactures the mass misery we see on our streets.

The plan subdivides and categorizes and complicates, and has little to no use for the non-expert. The plan is an insiders’ game.

The plan prioritizes the cost-effective and defines what is measured and what is not. Housing severely mentally ill and addicted “chronic” homeless people saves money and mitigates visible misery and is therefore a priority. Less troublesome single homeless men, in a system defined by scarcity, rise to the top of no one’s housing list.

Moving our more expensive homeless people into housing is a measure of success and is counted. Providing new shelter to the 2,736 people counted outside last year after existing resources were filled is not. There is no money for that.

With each passing decade, we adjust to new and higher levels of misery and unmet need, and all the while, we are assured by government, foundation and human services bureaucrats that slowly, surely and rationally, we are ending homelessness.

We will not. Not like this. There are more people in shelter and on the streets in King County today than when the local plan began seven years ago. That is an indisputable fact.

The plan is largely bereft of the moral outrage, passion and systemic challenges that ending homelessness would actually take, and it will take more than a passing changing of the guard to fix this. It will take all of us, pressing for something different.

On Jan. 24, nearly a thousand volunteers organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness will fan out in the early morning hours to count the unsheltered. It is an annual public ritual, like the running of the bulls in Pamplona or the coming of the swallows to Capistrano.

Last year, there were 2,736 counted. This year, there will again be too many. 

At 10 a.m., in Westlake Park, we will assemble to ring a gong once for every person counted in King County. This will take about four hours. A similar event will take place in Bellevue, outside of First Congregational Church.

This event will launch OutsideIN, a new campaign to reduce the number of people counted outside by 1,000 within a year.

It will also link homelessness to other fights for economic justice like fair wages, affordable housing and racial justice. Mark your calendars to attend the organizing meeting at Real Change on Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. For more information email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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