I’m not cynical. I believe attacking systemic homelessness is a worthy idea. I don’t believe defeating homelessness permanently is possible. (More on that below). That’s not a justification for not making housing circumstances better. Kudos to Phoenix’s Mayor Gallego for teeing up the problem and challenging participation. Now, it’s a problem at the scale of digesting an elephant; it requires baby steps and a lot of thought beforehand. The devil, as they say, lurks among the details.
One bright guy I knew as a youth, the late Craig Gold, said one evening that “intractable social problems have no clear answers – but they’re susceptible to evaluating by asking better and better questions.” That’s how I envision homelessness solutions: They’re moved forward only by asking and answering probing questions first. I’m going to discuss in a few parts over several weeks how to frame the important questions, which I think are:
• What are the authentic goals of the troops in this battle?
• What difficult policy choices must local leaders make?
• What’s the most sensible implementation of short-term homelessness mitigation?
• What’s the cost to local leaders of implementing homelessness mitigation?
• Where are mitigation resources coming from?
• How do you ensure the stickiness of solutions implemented?
I begin with goals-setting. That requires stating one’s genuine individual motivations for minimizing homelessness. If the troops don’t realize why they’re charging this mountain, it gets much harder to take it. It seems there are many motivations for desiring to reduce homelessness. Here are several:
1. Homelessness is the product of an unjust society; justice demands a fix and, come the revolution, it shall be done. The problem of identity politics is imbedded in the word identity. Prepare for screaming and dangling the problem in your face until you identify with [something]. With being accountable. With being greedy because, unlike the homeless, you have someplace to live and you haven’t devoted all your time and money to solving social ills. This is the thing: Incessant restatements of the problem and identifying those responsible causes/individuals/classes in society won’t implement solution(s). Neither will admissions of failed attentiveness, which aren’t forthcoming regardless.
2. I want to make my city look enlightened, progressive and earnest, to attract youthful tech and other knowledge workers to my community, turning it into a 24-hour city and boosting taxes and other revenue streams filling municipal coffers.
3. I want to look enlightened, progressive and earnest, to attract youthful tech and other knowledge economy workers as volunteers and donors to my future campaign for office.
4. I want to contain as many homeless persons as possible, so I don’t have to look at/deal with them on the street corners and sidewalks of my town. Let’s clean up this place!
5. I want to house as many homeless persons as possible, on the chance there’s the possibility the homeless in America someday may experience dignity in their lives. That’s because a great nation extends opportunities that are accessible and affordable to a wide swath of its citizens.
6. The Lord said “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater.”
I align more with group 5 but slightly with a few others. I’ll cavalierly label Group 5 the “pragmatists.” I suspect pragmatists know no local government will ever house everyone living on the streets within their community’s boundaries. Pragmatists also know that the incremental cost of attempting to punch the ball the last 10 yards to achieve 100% housing isn’t optimal use of municipal resources.
There are a few categories of homeless persons who will remain homeless. Recidivists are those who cannot cope with confinement within organized or independent housing, for a variety of reasons. Intransigents at one time were called “hobos,” folks who traveled the country at low costs, surviving by whatever means they could devise – including doing hard work at times. Intransigents want to come and go on their schedules. They don’t want your housing; living under a bridge is fine, thanks. They don’t want to be driven out of your community, either. They just want independence except from those from whom they seek aid.
How you understand and express your motivations informs what solutions to homelessness are implemented. Motivations color your approach to street planning. Such urban planning is what social scientists call a “wicked” problem involving many stakeholders with competing interests asserting claims to finite municipal resources. Competing interests are susceptible to no single right answer but endless debating over differing versions of value. For some, solutions implicate zero-sum outcomes – not reserved to the abortion rights debate. Homelessness solutions, properly conceived and implemented, don’t have to set off zero-summing competitions. The answer likely lies in a suite of solutions that address a variety of motivations.