February 23, 2010

Thinking Outside the (Cardboard) Box

Straight from our Executive Director of the Solutions University:

Two decades of being on the front lines as an advocate for the homeless and for programs that solve homelessness have taught me a couple of things about the reactions of people when it comes to this issue. In the spirit of trying to keep things simple here in this blog, the following are some basic thoughts regarding this complex problem.

Most people when they think of homelessness fall into one of two camps: Help them, or don’t help them. Let’s see how this simple concept (of help, don’t help) plays out here and in communities across the country.

The people that help are moved to help for different reasons, sometimes religious, sometimes just personal. But the way that most choose to help (because it seems to be such a big problem) is usually around what I call symptom relief. Example: you see a guy panhandling and give a buck, you volunteer at a soup kitchen to feed the hungry, or you give $100 to the local emergency shelter to help provide a warm bed. These are the usual ways to help the homeless, and these are all temporary solutions. The help isn’t meant to solve the person’s homelessness; it’s an act of compassion that relieves the person’s burden for a moment or a day. The giver feels good. The receiver of the compassion feels a little better. But when tomorrow comes, or next month, the person will almost always have the same symptoms, they will be hungry, cold and lonely – they will still be homeless. And there will always be people who want to help to relieve those burdens. New programs spring up to “help” the homeless using the same compassion principles. In response to the needs of the homeless, they acquire and deploy lots of resources.

Now let’s do a little experiment. Let’s say that in 1980 there were 1000 of these homeless people in a city of one million people. Using this approach of symptom relief, two hundred homeless people (20%) get out of homelessness (I think it’s much lower but we will go with 20%). The other 800 are still homeless, but now it’s a new year and there are 1000 more new homeless people. So now there are 1800 homeless in our city. Three hundred and sixty or 20% of those get out and now the remaining 1440 join the new 1000 and now there are 2440 homeless in our city. Flash forward to 2010. A recession or two, skyrocketing housing costs and cost of living increases produce more than 1000 new homeless during many of those past years and at the end of this thirty year experiment there are now thousands upon thousands of homeless people. The impact on human life is pretty bad because many of these folks are churning around in a system that specializes in managing their symptoms instead of solving the underlying causative factors. But here is the other thing that we overlook - by using this approach (I call it the containment approach) the impacts on our community are also really bad.

When you hear me talk about the negative impacts of homelessness on human beings and communities using a failed battle plan, this is what I am talking about. This is the old way, the old battle plan and it has failed us miserably. I have no doubt that my peers out there fighting this battle want to defeat the impacts of homelessness on people as bad as I do. The point that I am making is this: it’s not good enough that we fight for the homeless person; we have to fight with them on one shoulder and with people in our community on the other shoulder around a common mission, a joint venture, a unified vision to defeat this thing. Not for a month, or for six months, but permanently. That level of thinking leads to a much different kind of strategy, to a much different design and to a much different type of battle plan.

We cannot win as long as we continue to acquire, manage and deploy resources around the failed battle plan to contain homelessness. It might feel like we are doing some great and wonderful things, but we will not win.

Now here is where you are going to want to smack me in the kneecaps or say Halleluiah and give me a hug. Remember the people that I referred to in that other camp as not wanting to help the homeless? They, in many cases, are the folks that are shell shocked with the failed battle plan described above. It’s not that they don’t care; it’s that most of them hear the word homeless and associate that word with very negative impacts on and in their communities. I learned a long time ago that by being so focused and committed to alleviating the impacts of homelessness on the homeless person, that I might do so at the expense of the community, instead of for the community. I want you to really think about that for a minute. Opening a shelter in the middle of the city may “help” a ton of homeless people, but what if we are doing so at the expense of the community? Yeah, we might be able to mitigate some of those impacts with work crews and “partnerships” but if at the end of the day there are many people in that community that are being negatively impacted, we as the tacticians (as the General’s and Colonels) that are moving resources around on that battle field are failing. We are failing our community.

Hard to think about that scenario? I hope you can look at it honestly because you and I and all of us have a responsibility to stop the containment merry-go-round and start solving this for both the homeless person AND the community. Both can win. Be sick and tired, get fired up, do what our kids sometimes do and say “I’m pissed off”, whatever it takes, just respond to this in a way that says STOP the madness. Please. Get off the merry-go-round. Or better yet, stop spinning it.

There is a third way between the “help” and “don’t help” camps that is rooted in the core values of solving this thing that can engage and move folks (who are sick and tired of the impacts on human beings and community) in both of those camps around a new way to solve homelessness for both the person in crisis and for the community seeking real change.

Reimagine your community with no homeless people in it. Believe that it can happen. Now ask questions on how to get there. Call me 760-497-0041 or email me at chris@solutionsforchange.org and be ready to throw the (cardboard) box out. Thinking outside the box didn't work, so we threw it out.

Truly Yours,

Chris Megison
President and Executive Director
Solutions for Change

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