Let’s Go Big

An unexpected thing is happening. Homelessness is growing not in the most derelict cities but in the most affluent. Homelessness is now a symptom of prosperity not just decline.

This may make some sense. People with means move in and others are squeezed out. Yet, the high cost of housing is not the only reason our cities are facing crises of homelessness.

Two issues other come to mind – 1) housing policies have failed to provide a variety of housing types that are creative and cost effective enough to handle the diversity and complexity of the communities they serve; 2) we have been unable to address the root causes of homelessness and to provide real, tangible meaningful solutions to the manifestations of those causes – mental health, addiction and unemployment.

We have simply lost control. Because people need to sleep, eat and be somewhere, they have spilled into the streets. Tent cities that have become a symbol of our failure to provide a robust housing and service continuum that works. We cannot let this be a permanent condition.

I have vivid memories of visiting Rio De Janiero Brazil as a kid. I stood on the sidewalk of the bustling city staring at the shiny, high-rise buildings in the foreground and the shacks of corrugated metal hanging to the hills in behind them. These “favelas”, the shanty towns where squatters have taken hold of an area, were just as permanent as the luxury apartments that flank the world-famous Ipanema beach. They are a clear visual of the stark contrast in wealth, resources and opportunity that is accepted in most of the world. Brazil is an amazing country yet generations of lack of opportunity for large segments of the population has led to this sobering reality – the permanence of poverty.

Are our cities becoming the same? Will the tented communities in Los Angeles, Seattle and other major US cities become permanent?

In the United States of America we don’t have the same excuse as other countries. We have the resources and the ingenuity to set policies that work and to fund creative and lasting solutions – but do we have the will?

People, including our President, talk of the need to “clean up” our cities. But this is not just about optics. It is about bad policy and our need to re-think our response to addressing homelessness entirely.

The rise of street homelessness and the associated blight has driven a deep wedge into many communities. We must overcome the divisive rhetoric and get to the solutions. Communities are caught in a polarized debate between human rights – people should be allowed to sleep anywhere – and capitalism – property tax payers deserve clear streets – allowing anger, fear, and hopelessness to fester. We have gone into panic mode throwing money toward old policies instead of asking ourselves what new solutions we can find.

If it is true that the most prosperous cities are the ones with the growing populations of people experiencing homelessness, WHY can’t we turn this into an opportunity?

In other countries where seeing poverty is the norm, they often don’t have the resources – we do. In our major cities there is not only money but brainpower too. What we need is leadership.

Leadership in these cities should lean into their prosperity and recognize the unintended consequence of their growth and fix it. When it comes to homelessness they should move beyond band-aids and proactively leverage their resources to develop a thoughtful, comprehensive plan.

Let’s incentivize and empower these communities to become models. Let’s build coalitions not just of the old players of service providers and policy makers but include the innovators and stakeholders from the private sector that have a vested interest in solutions. Build coalitions with diverse, perspectives and skills sets and acknowledge that it is ok for groups to have different motivations – enlightened self-interest – if the common goal – to solve homelessness – is shared.

This is what we need to do:

  • Use data to understand the diversity of people experiencing homelessness in order to create commensurate interventions.
  • Develop a continuum of shelter, supports and housing with a single purpose – to reduce the time someone is on the streets.  Of course, if possible, prevent them from being on the streets in the first place.
  • Incentivize quick solutions through policy, funding and outcome-driven thinking. Re-invent revolving door shelters and create supports that address the root causes of homelessness.
  • Abandon old concepts of what housing should look like and invest in creative, cost-effective models such as co-ops, congregate living and micro-units.
  • Develop a coalition and common goals for law enforcement, service providers and property owners to not simply ban OR allow camping but acknowledge that people need to BE. Develop safe places where people can have access not just have resources for basic needs but have access to opportunities for success.
  • Put people to work. Take advantage of the need for labor in the workforce and the capacities of the over 80% of people experiencing homelessness who are unemployed.  Leverage creative solutions to employ people in social enterprise so they can add value to the economy while they are empowered with purpose.
  • Create holistic solutions that increase efficiency from a funding perspective and reduce barriers for the people they are trying to help.

We, at Bridge House, through our Path to Home and Ready to Work models have done this on a small scale. We have pushed for more local creativity and efficiency and have, with of our partners in Boulder and the region, achieved progress.

Let’s go bigger.

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