November 30, 2009

Does the Regional Shelter System Solve Homelessness?

As a long time advocate for the homeless and for programs that solve homelessness I have to speak up when I see things that I feel treat homelessness like a disease that has to be contained. It's not easy because I like many of the folks that run and serve in these programs and many of the entities that provide funding to them also provide funding to Solutions for Change. Obviously the views expressed here have been the subject of countless conversations with people in and around this field for years. But like any conversation around issues of critical importance, if you are on the minority side (which I am within my peers here) you run the risk of being labeled a whack job. All I can say is that I have had literally tens of thousands of interactions with homeless people over almost two decades. They need shelter but they don’t really want to be contained in winter shelters. They need food but they don’t want to be standing in a feeding line. They need compassion but they don’t need it as a transaction for 4 months in the winter. The homeless need access to permanent solutions, not more access to temporary solutions that keep them churning in a system which specializes in managing the symptoms of their homelessness.

The Regional Shelter System opens today for the winter months. You can read about it here.

There has been a new push in some communities across the country to move away from the traditional emergency shelter systems and into hybrid programs capable of addressing and solving the causative factors of homelessness. If we invested more of our brains, brawn, money and political capital into developing more access to permanent solutions, we wouldn’t need to fund a half million dollars in emergency shelters every winter. Yet we continue to feel good about throwing Band-Aids out there (temporary solutions) thinking this is the best we can do. That thinking is the wrong thinking and it is what keeps us locked into and stuck in mediocrity.

The evidence has consistently shown that shelters, feeding programs and these "case management" services (for the vast majority of the homeless) do nothing more than MANAGE the symptoms of homelessness by containing it. It cost a lot of money to continually manage the homeless problem year after year, versus the cost of investing in strategic approaches to solve it.
This is a noble help the homeless... but it would be a far nobler and more humane thing to stop this containment “merry go round” and activate the access to permanent solutions required to defeat homelessness, not for 4 winter months, but for good. With the right battle plan, homelessness is a solvable condition, yet the emergency winter shelter approach continues to treat the homeless like they are something that has to be controlled and a disease. It’s the equivalent of Tri City Hospital putting patients on beds with morphine drips making the patient comfortable instead of delivering a comprehensive treatment plan to address and solve the underlying condition. People die or churn around in the system forever. This is how we treat the homeless by continually placing them in emergency shelters year after year. Emergency shelters by their very nature are designed to contain, not solve problems. We call it compassion, but is this approach really compassionate?

It’s far time that this and other communities get behind local initiatives designed to solve homelessness using the innovative and proven alternative solution driven models that are springing up. They are bold, exciting, entrepreneurial driven solutions focused on outcomes instead of inputs, on number of people who get and stay off the streets, versus the number of bed nights provided or number of meals given out.

Many will read this article and feel good but the ugly truth of it is these programs keep people locked into a state of homelessness and perpetutate the churning effect that has led to homelessness becoming an epic social problem. We can’t solve the lowest rung of poverty (homelessness) with emergency winter shelter beds. We can only contain it for a few winter months, buy ourselves some guilt free nights...only to repeat it next winter. The people that run these things know this…they know that they are only containing it. And the last point is this…if the traditional shelter systems worked to end homelessness, why is there more homeless today than ever before? Pre recession, post recession, doesn’t matter…the impacts of homelessness have been and are greater than ever. It’s because these emergency shelters and most of the traditional homeless programs use old strategies that simply are designed to contain it, not solve it.


Denise said...

You might be interested in reading the article "Been There, Done That" on Pastoralia at about his experience at Grape Day Park in Escondido interacting and eating with the homeless that hang out at the Park.

Chris Megison: Co-Founder said...

I will check that out. Thanks!

Chris Megison: Co-Founder said...

Denise - I read his experience of feeding the homeless in Grape Day Park and I think I understand your reasons for directing me there. Thanks for caring about the homeless. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he didn't have to go to Grape Day Park anymore to feed the homeless?

Denise said...

Yes! It certainly would:) Jason is my oldest son and we are coming (myself, husband, two younger sons Drew & Dylan along with Jason and his wife Jenell) on the morning of Dec. 20th to help with the Christmas gifts you are giving out to the families at SFC. We love your organization and I am hoping to get more involved with it:)

Denise said...

Karyn Kipley signed us all up to help that morning:)