January 27, 2017

San Diego's Codependent Relationship with the Homeless

Today volunteers from around San Diego County hit the streets to count the homeless as part of our annual We All Count in hopes that we can get more federal funding for our region. This caused me to reflect on my 25th year being On Point in this effort to lead folks out of homelessness, while serving our public in a Serve to Solve focused Mission. And so with this in mind, I hope you enjoy reading my perspective on the dynamic of codependency between San Diego and its homeless.

The first homeless program that I ran was a place for chronic street men in 1994 at a rural ranch in Vista. I thought the idea of being far away from the urban environment would be a huge factor in helping these men get healthy. The key however wasn't the serene peaceful location (although it didn't hurt), the key was found in the interactions between the men and the helpers who worked there.

The group who had run the programs before me had created a beautiful retreat center type environment where the homeless would come to escape the rigors of the LA's infamous Skid Row. What happened though in nearly every case was that they became dependent on the programs…they’d live there for a year or two…fall out and go back to Skid Row…then come back and do it over again and again. This happened despite all of the men working various jobs at the ranch and getting a lot of support and counseling.

Why did the men fail? Why couldn't the program, despite the very caring and competent staff and volunteers succeed in helping the men end their homelessness? 

What I learned here would later become the single most important factor in designing and managing every one of the nearly two dozen programs that we have since built at Solutions for Change

There is an innate human tendency that is deeply ingrained in the makeup of most people who choose to work in this field that can create a very dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship between the helper and the one being helped. It is hard to see and even harder to talk about for most. It has a name that has been widely used in the addiction recovery field but has recently been more widely applied to social issues where groups (nonprofits, churches, government programs) serve needy clients. The name is Codependency.

The book "When Helping Hurts" is a good place to start if you want to learn more about how this dynamic can be a sneaky and silent killer in any homeless or poverty effort.

Codependency can play out in a one-on-one relationship say between a parent and child, in a church with dozens of volunteers serving many homeless, in a region with hundreds of well-intentioned groups helping thousands of homeless, or in an entire society grappling with what to do with a massive homeless problem.

I believe that the urban core of San Diego is suffering hugely from this exact dynamic. The community fabric here is interwoven with a type of codependent glue that has been well entwined between the helpers and the homeless for decades. Will counting more homeless so that San Diego can get more funding solve this problem? Will building 5000 more affordable housing units for the homeless do the trick? Will getting every single advocate, government agency, nonprofit, church, donor and volunteer to collaborate together on the same plan finally bring us to the promised land? Those are all the things being discussed and focused on but none of them will work for a long term solution. In fact, all of these things will very likely make the problem worse.

Here is why it gets worse...because these things create more dependency and more dependency will ALWAYS create more COdependency. So even though you've got dozens of self described homeless experts down there championing a design of Housing First and centralized coordination, the only thing you'll get is more unhealthy relationships between them and the other helpers and the homeless who will now be dependent, but coordinated and behind a door somewhere. And as soon as the helpers start patting themselves on the back, more homeless will appear, but it won't be just 6,000 more homeless. It will be three times that number. Why? Because the hundreds of thousands in deep poverty (there are 20M nationally) will see that you can be rewarded with a free apartment in America's Finest City if you are homeless.

What is needed isn’t more money, more shelter or more free Housing First units…it is a community-wide intervention. San Diego needs a leader to lead that intervention conversation. Only after that, will San Diego have a real shot at sticking a flag in the ground that says Victory! 

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