March 8, 2010

The Need for Change is Calling Our Name

By special invitation of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), I had the privilege of participating in last Tuesday’s Community Stakeholder Meeting in San Francisco on the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. I was one of a handful present from Southern California and according to one of the organizer’s the only one from San Diego County. The purpose was to collect input from us stakeholders which would then be used to assist the USICH in preparing a report that will be submitted to Congress and the President on May 20, 2010. I was very pleased to see a strong emphasis placed on addressing family homelessness.

The forum itself was okay. Lots of energy and good ideas. But what struck me the most was the gut wrenching contrast 500 feet to my right. Despite the optimism, it didn’t take long for me to remember that right outside the doors from where I sat were the glaring outcomes of similar meetings in March 2004, held in this same building. In those meetings a group of very capable and dedicated people began crafting a plan to abolish chronic homelessness. Months later they submitted the plan entitled San Francisco’s Ten Year Plan to end chronic homelessness to the Mayor. They met 85 times in four months and engaged more than 785 individuals representing 400 organizations.

The plan, like its counterpart “Ten Year Plans” in other cities across the country, was activated with much passion and commitment around a very serious goal of ending chronic homelessness. Now six years into this ten year plan you don’t need me to analyze the results. If you were here with me you would have met three of the roughly 40 souls I encountered during my ten minute walk from the hotel to City Hall. Martha, Thomas and Oscar all of whom did their best to aggressively panhandle me (Oscar was quite persuasive) represent three of the more than 2500 chronic homeless still churning around on the streets of San Francisco. I know there has been progress and I commend the effort made but all of you reading this must know in your gut that the ROE, the Return on Energy, with all the concerted effort, from such dedicated people, executed over so many years, is way way off the mark. Why?

So once again I offer the opening conversation points for any group concerned about homelessness in their communities:

ABANDON the old failed battle plan of managing the symptoms of homelessness. Stop treating homelessness like a disease that has to be contained and start looking at the impacts of homelessness on human beings and communities as a solvable condition. REDESIGN using a new vision and a winnable battle plan. Start with throwing out the phrase “end homelessness”. It has lost all credibility. Cast your vision around “solving homelessness”. Define “solve” as this: access to permanent solutions. There are three types of homeless (not a judgment, just a clear way to talk about a complicated issue) – The Have Not, the Can Not and the Will Not. Each one needs a very different engagement and intervention strategy. Hint: Treating a Will Not like a Can Not is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. This is the one huge mistake that many communities continue to make and it is costing them dearly. Once you start having this conversation at 30,000 ft. you will begin the strategic process of defeating the impacts of homelessness on human beings AND community and you will REIMAGINE your community homeless free.

- Chris Megison

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