February 19, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 8

Director's Corner

A triage tent on the front lines of the war on the poor

By Timothy Harris , Executive Director

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Utah says they’re on track to “end homelessness” by 2015. This, to many, is both hopeful and a little counterintuitive. Utah, to most of us here in the Socialist Republic of Seattle, means Mormons, Mitt Romney and red state Republicans. This is not where we expect to find the leading edge of liberal reform.

Turns out, the big news from Utah is about the same old tricks. Since the Bush administration first required that cities have Ten Year Plans as a requirement for federal homeless and housing funding, the terms “chronic homelessness” and “homelessness” have been routinely conflated.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of “chronic homeless” is someone “who has experienced homelessness for a year or longer, or who has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years and has a disability.”

“Homeless” means something much broader: someone who “lacks a … nighttime residence, or has a primary nighttime residence that is … not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.” Say, in a car, or under a bridge.

This means that whenever you see a headline like “The Most Unlikely State in America Is On Track to Eradicate Homelessness By 2015,” you can assume someone is confusing their terms.

Which happens to be the case here.  In Utah, “chronically” homeless people were estimated at about 13 percent of the overall number.  Based upon their 2005-2007 counts, Utah defined its baseline homeless population at 13,733 people annually, with 1,840 of them qualified as “chronic.”

By 2012, the number of homeless in Utah had risen to 16,522.

In 2013, that number fell to 15,093.  The number of “chronic” homeless, however, fell to a total of just 495, which accounts for the 74 percent decrease everyone’s talking about.  So, “Yay, Utah!”

“This trajectory,” said Utah’s Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, “is extremely positive.”

Really?  Not so fast, Slick.

It’s great that Utah reduced their chronic homeless count by nearly three-quarters, and that their overall number fell last year as well.  But let’s be clear:  Since its plan began, Utah’s homeless population has risen by 10 percent. 

Call it what it is: a relatively cost-effective targeting of limited resources to the most disabled and vulnerable.

This is not the “eradication” of homelessness. It’s a triage tent on the front lines of the war on the poor. Disinvestment in low-income communities, austerity budgets at all levels of government, excessive profit-taking by corporations and developers, and a deeply regressive tax system that redistributes wealth upward all work together to keep the carnage coming.

And none of that is going to change until we stop accepting the lie that we can end homelessness without fundamental system change. The Ten Year Plans all begin with the assumption that poverty and inequality are huge and divisive issues that we can’t affect, but “homelessness” is small enough to take on by itself and win.

This is the logic of system maintenance, not system change.

Worse, the majority of us in the homelessness biz have bought in. We believe that if we start tilting at windmills like inequality, our efforts will fragment and we’ll lose hard fought ground.

This, I think, is the Big Lie that keeps homelessness growing, decade after decade.

What the Utah example says to me is that our mostly depoliticized approach to “ending homelessness” is public policy that even Mitt Romney can love, and that we’re so desperate for evidence of success we’ll believe and promote even the most transparent lies.

This isn’t winning. It’s more like surrender on enemy terms.

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