January 26, 2011

Police Intervention and the Homeless Issue

I was recently asked to share my views for an out of town newspaper article about the value of social service engagement in contrast to police intervention tactics. This made me really think from the police officer's view about how he or she must feel when dealing with the impacts of homelessness in their city. So I offer my thoughts...perhaps not what you would expect from someone running a "social service" type agency. I'd be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

It’s a trust thing.

How many times have we collectively, as a nation of homeless service providers, made promises that we are going to end homelessness? We are great at issuing intentions but when it comes to delivery on those intentions we haven’t done a very good job, have we? As a collective body, we can come up with a million excuses, some of them very legit that help to explain why, but what I am simply saying is that we’ve issued promise after promise to end homelessness and time after time we’ve failed to deliver on that promise. And we rarely admit it. We just go on to the next plan and the next one and the next… That is a really bad business model. The result is that we as a nation of homeless service providers have conditioned the public to believe that despite what we say, that homelessness can’t really be solved, that it will never really end.

The good news is that every day I see more evidence that shows me that there are some leaders out there in the fight to defeat homelessness who are abandoning the old battle plans that have failed us as a people, failed our communities and failed our neighbor - the neighbor that we call “the homeless”. These failed battle plans; the “containment system” of managing the impacts of homelessness through shelters, soup kitchens, free housing (Housing First designs) and servicing the homeless are being shredded and replaced with bold new thinking and audacious new strategies primarily fixed around the transformational housing model like what Solutions for Change has adapted. It’s not happening fast enough, but it is happening and it is mainly occurring through these almost rogue like social entrepreneurial insurgency operators who are daring to move people around outrageous visions and models (oh my) of actually solving homelessness.

Recovering from decades of executing a failed battle plan is going to take time. As it is now when I say that we are solving homelessness to the police officer, the elected official or the churchgoer, among many others, it’s like I can hear them say to themselves, “yeah right, here we go again, I’ve heard this one before”. As someone on the front lines battling the impacts of homelessness I know that it’s up to me to deliver on promise. Do I like it when the police officer intervenes into a homeless situation using law enforcement as their primary option? No I don’t because I know that there are so many other effective ways to deal with the greater underlying causative factors of the problem. But I can understand it. I understand it because for decades we’ve said to the cop wait a sec, I’ve got this one. Only to watch the impacts of homelessness on communities explode in the cops face.

It’s going to take time to gain the trust of the police officer, the elected official, the faith community and with the public in general. If our national leaders insist on making promises like “ending homelessness” then I’d recommend that they find a way to deliver on that promise pronto because their words mean very little to the cop, the elected official or the churchgoers at this point in time. Make promises that we can keep, and watch our relationship with law enforcement and other community partners take a huge turn for the better.

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