Published Sunday, May 27, 2007: North County Times
What does solving homelessness for a community look like? Community homelessness is a complex social problem, but it can be solved with the right approach. We should not gauge our success based on how many social service programs a community can produce, or how many beds can be created, but rather how those programs or beds are being used to actually solve the causative factors of homelessness.
It should be about solving the homeless problem, shouldn’t it? But, is it being solved in North County? Or, is there a system, a default system perhaps, which only manages the symptoms of the problem, tries to contain homelessness, and simply reacts to homelessness?
I recently posed a question to my executive director peers from other local human service agencies that caused some spirited discussion. Here was the question: Collectively, as a North County region, and as a community of non profits dealing with the homeless, have we been effective in solving the homeless problem? If not, why?
I believe we have not been collectively effective. We are not solving the homeless problem for North County. Sure, as independent organizations, we can and we do solve homelessness for people. But, open the paper on any given day and you can read about what I mean when I say regional reactions vs. regional solutions. Together, as a community, we aren’t solving it.
Why aren’t we solving it? Perhaps one of the top reasons is because outdated federal policies and funding strategies have ineffectively filtered down from above and into our North County service providers. In turn, those agencies have done what they were supposed to do, yet the problem still exists.
Homeless service providers in San Diego County have received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state funding over the past two decades to “help” the homeless.
That funding has created dozens of programs. Services within those programs were then delivered to the homeless. This funding was given to the non profits for them to try and address the problems of homelessness, yet it only seems to have largely contained the problem. Twenty years worth of funding based on an input-driven model instead of an outcome-driven model has not solved the problem. Is that an acceptable model for our community?
What do I mean by inputs as opposed to outcomes? Inputs are the number of beds filled, meals provided, service units given, etc. A heavier weight must be placed on outcomes achieved: people equipped to maintain their own housing, people equipped to feed themselves, income increased by “X” number of dollars, amount of money in savings, college courses completed, causative factors eliminated or greatly reduced (relapse-free, mental health episodes diminished, etc.). The real proof in solving community homelessness should ultimately be measured in the eye of the public. Can we stroll through our parks or walk into our supermarket without being aggressively panhandled? Can we drive through town without seeing groups of homeless people huddled in our public places? If not, are we really solving the problem?
If we truly want to solve community homelessness, we must stop simply managing the symptoms of the underlying problems that cause homelessness. The problems that come from active addiction, untreated mental illness, unemployment, lack of education, and poverty cannot be addressed with the same old reactive containment model. We end up stuck in a default, automatic pilot containment mode, or disguising faulty models with new language, like “ten-year plans”, and “strength-based” systems.
We can dress it up all you want, but after another 10 years and another 20 billion dollars, we’ll still be scratching our heads. North County must stop calling what we’ve been doing for the homeless a “good” model which we are now going to try and make “better”. We must decide that we are now going to completely scrap that faulty model and rebuild from new core values based on a model of accountability that will result in new, congruent practices with real outcomes.
Enabling hurts the homeless person. When a community stops enabling, many homeless will stop being homeless.
Yes, feed the hungry. Yes, shelter the homeless. But, do so in conjunction with a solid plan, a real plan that includes a real partnership based on mutually agreed upon accountability structures with mutual goals and objectives that will help them solve the problems that have contributed to their homelessness. That is real compassion. That is real love. Only then will North County truly solve their homeless problem. Until then, it’s more of the same ol’, same ol’.
President and Executive Director
North County Solutions for Change