December 9, 2008

ON POINT: The Homeless Issue in North San Diego County

When serving in the Corps, we had to make our own parts in the metal shop. We couldn’t just put in the trusty requisition form and expect to get a nice new part the next day like the Army or Air Force. I've been making "parts", finding creative solutions and helping to rebuild much more important things since those days.

It started by accident when I lost a bet with my fellow Marines, I wasn’t too happy about having to serve in a soup kitchen line. Little did I know that this would be the divine pivot point that would change my whole life. That first night, I met one of North County's most prominent "chronic" homeless persons. Steve. Nickname: Wolfman. Not knowing exactly why, I sat down with him over a bowl of soup.

What I learned starting in that moment with Steve was that there was an elaborate system of churches and non profits and many heroes who worked tirelessly to feed, clothe and take care of all the Steve's out there. But the more I talked to Steve and listened to his trials the more troubled I became.

So I decided to do what any good Marine would do, I packed my stuff and went on a little recon mission into the parks, beaches and service centers of San Diego county. What I came out of there with a few days later fired me up big time and put me on a divinely navigated pathway, which as you’ve figured out by now would take me on a 17 year mission (my friends say it’s more like a calling). What I have learned then and what I know now is much the same, only I can summarize it better now because (like most Marines) I needed to get some of this stuff drilled into my head. Here it is:

- Many churches and non profits have these amazing dedicated compassionate people, heroes really, working tirelessly trying to help the homeless
- Many homeless people, desperately needing help, consumed the resources given by these great organizations
- The people helping felt good
- The people being helped felt good
- The business community, the government and community at large where the homeless and the programs were in felt bad. They were angry actually.
- Why? Because the programs were helping the homeless at the expense of the community instead of with and for the community.
- They were helping the homeless with a “one size fits all approach” instead of recognizing that there were distinctly different needs around vastly different segments of the homeless:

o Intervention, Engagement and Strategy Number One: Solve it for the Will Not. The Will Not is typically the highest percentage of homeless person out there on the streets representing 40% or more of the homeless. This is the person who is normally stuck in an active addiction and is impacting our community the greatest. Not utilizing a customized strategic plan with this segment of the homeless problem is the single biggest reason why we fail. The cost to society of managing this group and “churning” them through the various government funded “systems” is staggering.

o Intervention, Engagement and Strategy Number Two: Solve it for the Can Not. The Can Not represents about 18% of the total homeless population. This is the person that suffers from a bonafide mental illness or a dual diagnosis. Interestingly enough, this number is often over represented in the field because a high percentage of WILL NOT’s get treated like CAN NOT’s. This is a recipe for disaster.

o Intervention, Engagement and Strategy Number Three: Solve it for the Have Not. The Have Not’s are all the other homeless persons out there. Typically they are the ones who become homeless due to economic reasons, domestic violence or other factors due to external or environmental reasons. This is the percentage of homeless that most homeless providers call “skimming the cream” because they are the easiest to work with (when compared to the Will Not or Can Not) and have the highest relative positive outcomes.

Lesson learned after the recon mission and more. Megison’s New Mission. The Goal: Figure out a way to SOLVE homelessness for the person AND the community simultaneously.

The ultimate test of effectiveness (and it is progressive with greater positive outcomes seen over time) 1) Less homeless people in our community, 2) less homeless impacts in our community 3) More formerly homeless people being productive and contributing to a healthy and strong community by earning income, buying goods from area merchants and helping others by paying it forward.

After many years of playing around with and retooling “parts” we’ve been able to social reengineer and get these results consistently.

When a community runs emergency shelters and homeless programs and we see many homeless people struggling to survive in parks, beaches and public spaces are we solving the problem or containing the problem?

The reason this happens is because we are stuck in using outdated and ineffective operational models. After working for 17 years on this issue and experiencing thousands of interactions with the homeless we've developed a model based on innovative intervention and engagement strategies. The model can work for any community that wants to SOLVE homelessness. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying that it’s doable. The documentary being done on Vista and the efforts in this city to SOLVE homelessness proves this.

It really comes down to how bad do you as a community want to solve homelessness?

No comments: