This writing piece is different from anything I have posted on this website. Mixing in a bit of personal experience upfront, the core of this much longer than usual post, is my exploration of appropriate government policy responses to what I see as the preeminent visible socioeconomic failure of our time in my hometown of Olympia, as well as much of the west coast of the United States and elsewhere in our country – widespread public homelessness.
Originally, the first part below was written just before the COVID pandemic came into our consciousness. I’ve added a couple of subsequent installments that get us to the present, one year after the original piece was written.
Act 1: February 2020
The Berkeley Hostel’s sign in our sleeping quarters read, “No Smoking.” Ten feet to the right of the sign, a tall and powerful young man sat on the edge of his bunkbed, holding forth with stories of crimes committed and drugs obtained to an attentive audience of a half-dozen other powerful-looking young men. They were all smoking cigarettes.
Laying on my rumpled cot across the small dim-lit room, it was late evening, and I was stewing on the scene. While I hated smelling the cigarette smoke, there was no way in hell I was going to ask them to stop. I had run out of money, my stomach ached of hunger, and I was most definitely tired and ready for sleep. But I wasn’t no idiot.
Back in 1979, I was trying to establish residency in California to go to grad school on the cheap. Using a friend’s address on my university application, I hitchhiked around the state, looking for a place to stay and perhaps a temp job or two before I found out whether I’d be going to UCLA or Cal. The Berkeley Hostel was kind of the lowest rung of my travel accommodations. Not the International Youth Hostels of my earlier European visits, this hostel was… well, hostile. Dirt cheap housing for men who had nowhere else to go but the street.
For me, it was frightening, that hostel. I stuck out like a lanky albatross, and those young men could have just as soon shot me as say howdy do. But there was a big difference between me and those smokers, I suspected. I knew that whenever I wanted, I could call Mom and Dad and ask them to take me back home. I was middle class by upbringing, bound for grad school (I hoped!), and had support from people who loved me. I had a way out.
The next day I found a place to stay with a friend of my friend’s grandparents. Two days later I was working for Daniel Ellsberg, sorting through the Pentagon Papers… but that’s another story. It is the experience of the Berkeley Hostel that has stuck with me these days. Because if not for the luck of my upbringing and the timing of the incident, I could have found myself mired in a frightening homelessness. Falling down the economic ditch is so very easy. “Sister Carrie” meet Brother Danny.
In downtown Olympia, in the winter of 2020, homelessness doesn’t feel like the biggest local issue. It feels like the only issue. For the last year plus, I have been asking my friends and city officials questions. What am I supposed to do if I see a man lying on the street, sleeping or otherwise unconscious? Am I supposed to just walk by him? Do I try to rouse him to make sure he’s ok? And what do I say to that person, if anything, if he is roused? “You ok?” “Can I help you?” “Here’s a number to call if you need help?” “Here’s $10?”
Responses to my questions have been unsatisfying. So, my questions have continued, as has my research into homelessness. My son Zac gave me an excellent book called “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” that explores large-scale forces contributing to homelessness. It makes bold recommendations for tackling the issue. I am now in the middle of streaming the excellent podcast, “The Outsiders,” which looks deeply at causes of homelessness, experiences of the homeless, and policy efforts being carried out by the city of Olympia, and other organizations which care about our homeless population, to reduce the number of unsheltered people in the Olympia area, increase their chances of climbing out of their personal chasms, and improve the overall quality of the community for all city residents and businesses.
After my Berkeley Hostel experience, I did indeed make it into grad school at Cal’s Department of City and Regional Planning. My professional training and eventual experience in local government land use and environmental planning has oriented me toward seeking policy solutions to urban issues, more than interpersonal ones. Which is why I – along with just about everyone else in our nation – have been exasperated with our inability to come up with solutions to massive increases in homelessness in our communities.
Some believe that the significant increases in homelessness we all visibly see is an unavoidable consequence of growing income and wealth inequality in our society and other systemic economic forces and policies. Some believe that inadequate mental health services and the lack of other social supports are major contributors to the problem. Others see drug and alcohol abuse as primary causes. Still others believe that society is too “permissive” of anti-social behavior. Drawing on my land use planning background, others blame federal and state housing policies which have resulted in the reduction in subsidized units and the virtual elimination of the traditional SRO (Single Room Occupancy) apartments serving low-income people.
My judgment is that all the above are contributing factors to the expansion of homelessness in our society. Further, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to suss out exact percentages of the contribution of each factor. In proposing a “solution” to the homelessness issue, then, I believe one must include elements that touch all the factors. And that is my intent in the following pages – to propose a “solution.”
Assumptions and Biases
First, let me state some basic assumptions and biases in addressing homelessness as a public policy issue. I do not believe it should be socially acceptable for people to be unsheltered and using public spaces as open-air domiciles. It is not healthy in the long run for people to live unsheltered. It is not safe and healthy to the unsheltered of course, but also not healthy for communities. It is not an acceptable “lifestyle” in a country that can afford better.
This lack of acceptance of homelessness sets up three critical – and challengeable – additional assumptions. Assumptions about human rights, adult responsibilities, and community obligations.
First, safe and healthy shelter should be a human right. No one should be turned away from someplace to shelter. Second, it is every person’s responsibility to accept shelter when it is safe and healthy for them to do so. Third, it is a community’s – read government at the federal, state and local level – responsibility to provide enough safe and healthy shelter space to meet all who need it at the maximum level of independent living for each person. I will explicate the three assumptions.
“Safe and healthy” needs established standards that will not be described here. But our country has the financial resources and organizational capacity to assure that no one is forced to live/sleep on the street due to lack of money and/or lack of mental health and capacity. For some, this means the ability to live with a high level of independence in an established residence. For others, such as the profoundly developmentally disabled, this means 24-7 supervision and care. For many of the currently unsheltered, it means some intermediate level of care and support. Since society has the capability to shelter all at an appropriate level of independence, it should strive to do so.
But what of those individuals who assert a right to go unsheltered in public spaces if they are not damaging property or hurting people? Must society allow for such a lifestyle? My response is that unsheltered living – for any extended period of time – by its very nature is self-destructive, self-limiting, and impactful on society. I believe that every adult person who has the capability to contribute has a responsibility to contribute to society at a certain minimal level, and that acceptance of that responsibility is part of the essence of a healthy adult life. Of course, people cannot all contribute equally and in the same manner. But one established minimum, should be that all must accept a kind of shelter that has the minimum intrusion into a person’s independent life and still not have that person impact negatively upon others.
But what constitutes minimum intrusion into independence? The city of Olympia is experimenting with the concept of a “pipeline” for independence. This seems to me an excellent approach. If there are a range of options from 24/7 supervision to full independence, individuals can work with community officials to move their lives as far along the independence pipeline as they can go over time.
The Problems of Scale and Distribution
The massive increase in unsheltered population is not evenly distributed throughout the country. It is most prominent on the west coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The massive increase in unsheltered population in public spaces is not evenly distributed in Thurston County. It is centered in Olympia – with a secondary impact in Lacey and more defuse patterns in rural areas. A recent discussion I had with a city of Tumwater official found virtually no unsheltered people in that city during the recent annual homelessness census.
Why are there major variances in frequency of occurrence based on geography? Why is there a tendency for agglomeration of homelessness?
At a statewide level, there appears to be a strong correlation in the frequency of homelessness between increases in the cost of housing and income available to the lowest quartile of the population. Simply put, someone with a minimum wage job cannot afford the lowest cost housing available on the market. There are many other factors at work, but data from the state department of commerce asserts the above correlation as most profound.
Within an urban area, the greatest correlation between the number of unsheltered people in a public place and the location of that place, is the level of support services available for those people. If you are homeless, you have vastly more access to social supports in downtown Olympia than anywhere else in the urban area. So, does provision of social services “cause” homelessness to rise? The evidence is weak on this. It seems much more the case that the homeless will congregate near services, but services do not increase the number of people experiencing homelessness overall in any urban region. Overall, people do not choose to be homeless to receive homeless services, but rather people who are homeless go to the locations where services are highest.
What do these two dynamics of scale and distribution tell us about how to solve the problem of homelessness in public spaces? To me they demand large-scale (principally federal and state) economic-based solutions to housing support as one key part of an overall approach. Local government simply does not have the authority to balance housing and labor markets or the resources to deal with various non-economic factors.
Large percentages of homeless individuals self-identify as sexual minorities (LGBTQ), far above their percentage in the total population. African Americans are disproportionately homeless. Those struggling with drug and other substance abuse account for a disproportionate amount of the homeless. Institutional racism and prejudice, including decades of legal discrimination, has resulted in members of various social groups being more likely to end up on the streets.
There has also been social policy that has exacerbated the forces that leave individuals with fewer options to homelessness. Civil libertarians fought hard to increase the requirements for government to involuntarily commit individuals to institutions for both mental health and mental capacity reasons. But at the same time, as the institutions were emptied, there were not corresponding community mental health and other social investments to assist those people to maximum independence in a safe and healthy environment. Finally, the war on drugs in the criminal justice system has been widely seen as a failure and counterproductive.
The Basic Reason for Homelessness
The above analysis identifies reasons for increases in homelessness throughout the country and spikes in homelessness in certain areas. But there is a universal characteristic that applies to every individual who is homeless which supersedes economics or social class. A late friend of mine, Dr. Aaron Lowin, studied homelessness 20 years ago as a sociological researcher at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. He found that the underlying constant of the unsheltered, was that they as individuals had been unable to form, nurture and maintain intimate personal relationships. No matter one’s income, if you have a loved one who will let you “sleep on the couch” you will not be unsheltered. You might be without a home of your own, but you will not be on the street. Positive interpersonal connections, ironically, promote healthy independence.
There are policy prescriptions for that curse of social isolation, though none that would on their own eliminate the problem of homelessness. But it is important to note that for every systems-approach look at the crisis of expanded homelessness, there are individual lives of choice and condition which are distinctive, unique, and complex.
A Comprehensive Proposal
The United States should set as a goal the total elimination of unsheltered people in public spaces. To accomplish this goal, the following actions should take place:
- The federal government should dramatically expand the Section 8 housing voucher program and change some of its attributes. At its core, the program should guarantee that no individual or family would need to use more than 1/3rd of household income on rent. Lessors (landlords/ladies) of multi-family units would be mandated to accept a certain percentage of housing voucher recipients or lose tax benefits. Rent subsidies would be provided to renters and/or directly paid to lessors. Those with essentially no income would in turn pay no rent. Such a program would by necessity include a massive increase in bureaucracy to mitigate against fraud, and to closely monitor income. The current housing market is principally a private one and this would maintain that system as the primary means of shelter.
- The federal government should provide funds for a pipeline of supportive public and non-profit housing types throughout the country. These would also include funding for public and non-profit supportive service providers. The goal of this funding would be to develop a series of options to move people from 24/7 care to as close to independence as they can get. Services would include mental health support, sheltered workshops, addiction and substance abuse support and other direct supports.
- To meet the social service staffing needs of the above and below recommendations, an emergency training and hiring program should be enacted and funded with a combination of state and federal funds, for social case workers, mental health counselors, cleaning services and other direct providers to assist the homeless and help them move to maximal independence.
- Prior to establishment of the above funding and services, all local governments, with adequate state funding, should provide emergency supportive housing to meet the existing and forecast population of persons experiencing homelessness. Property owners would be compensated for such use at appropriate market rates. Other available and suitable sites for emergency housing should be pursued.
- The National Guard, as well as Army Corps of Engineers, have experience in establishing emergency shelter and medical facilities, and those resources should be deployed. The ongoing homelessness crisis is enough reason to activate this federal capacity, in coordination with local and state governments which would be responsible for siting and accurately scaling service centers.
- Federal and state governments should institute a comprehensive apprenticeship approach toward employing the employable homeless population. This can be based on existing programs, with major increases in funding and scope. Emulate the Great Depression’s Civilian Conservation Corps with a major new emphasis on programs like the Washington Conservation Corps, removing invasive species and restoring healthy ecosystem with public access. Expand trade apprenticeship programs dramatically and combine them with the housing programs identified above. Provide, for those experiencing homelessness, and who are able and willing to work, a career ladder toward true skill development and financial independence, providing a real bundle of carrots.
- Once the above services are in place – or substantially in place – then local governments should carry out actions that would require individuals to accept the appropriate type of housing and level of service for their situation. People would not be allowed to sleep on the street, but rather would be placed into this new pipeline system of support. That means the compassionate enforcement of no-camping laws, and a systematic increase in the expectations for responsible civil behavior.
As a young man, I appreciated the opportunity to explore the world with a high level of independence. Hitchhiking around California and sleeping under the stars on a warm summer night was a growth experience. Accepting a modest level of physical risk was a small price to pay for my freedom to travel and discover. But those were sanguine times. My coming-of-age opportunities were backed by a parental home of safety and health. And they were grounded in my own moral compass that left society no worse the wear for my soft rebellions to authority.
That kind of “petit homelessness” has nothing in common with the pervasive and desperate conditions faced by our 21st Century fellow community members. We owe it to them, and to us, to provide a better set of choices than the depravations and dangers of the street. The resources needed to meet that challenge require no less than a realignment of our publicly funded priorities. But make no mistake. We can afford this. And at the cost of our moral bearings, we cannot afford not to.
Act 2: August 2020
We are now struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. The scourge of homelessness, both in its extent and its health risks to the broader community, and to the homeless people themselves, has gotten far worse than when I wrote the above words in February.
We have also been experiencing the largest and most sustained protest movement to hit the nation’s streets for at least two generations. This movement is laying bare the racial nature of American inequality and police brutality. It is demanding, in its most elemental spirit, social and economic justice. Homelessness appears to us now, a stunningly cruel and public manifestation of these injustices.
The pandemic has exacerbated the problems identified in this writing’s Act 1 and increased the costs of its proposed solutions. But for me, the approach remains a logical and achievable means of crawling out of the moral hole that we have dug for ourselves.
There remains but one thing more to say, though it may already be obvious. The cost of my proposal is significant. It goes to the overall fiscal priorities of our nation. Simple solutions like redirecting funds from major cuts in police expenditures to the above programs are but a tiny fraction (perhaps 5 – 10%?) of the needs for effective implement. The moral question, the political question, is whether we, who are financially and otherwise privileged, are truly willing to advocate for and feel the burden of, a new and inclusive direction for our nation and its suffering communities.
Act 3: February 2021
The Biden Administration has just replaced the Trump Administration a couple of weeks ago. The pandemic is near its peak (I pray) of destruction. And the scourge of Olympia’s homelessness is both deepening and evolving in mixed fashion. Low-income housing has been constructed and occupied. More units are on their way. But our city’s streets and unbuilt upon lands – both private and public – have become scenes of crushing contradictions. Long-term “impermanent homes” for the homeless are now fixtures of a capital city’s identity.
Hope, maybe, is on the way. President Biden has called for a massive increase in funding for the federal rental assistance program (Section 8) as part of his proposed $1.9 trillion COVID relief act. We’ll need to watch the details as his proposal wends its way through Congress, but clearly my view that a more aggressive federal response to homelessness is shared by the new Administration.
We have just entered the time of this writing topic’s third act. It looks like we are at the cusp of aggressive government actions at the federal, state and local levels, and correspondingly productive private sector contributions.
It is indeed a time for some well-earned hope. COVID vaccinations are off and running. I got my first dose last week. There is a genuine potential for political alignment to tackle homelessness and its socioeconomic causes. And decisions and actions to address homelessness in the last few years are now bearing fruit, with constructed units occupied and services provided.
If Act 3 thus begins with productive actions that spawn hope and further actions, may it end with genuine progress toward the elimination of endemic public homelessness. Those who need a safe, healthy and warm home, should have one.
I welcome all criticism of the above. What assumptions of mine are foolish or wrong? How could the problems of homelessness be ameliorated at much less cost? Am I being overly alarmist or unrealistic? How am I missing the mark?
If you haven’t read “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, you ought to. Written in 1900, it is a powerful, sad, scary depiction of what can happen to people in a society without what Ronald Reagan referred to as a “safety net. ” Even with today’s much more extensive set of governmental supports, the psychology and sociology of personal experience in “Sister Carrie” gives insight into what it must be like to fall deeper and deeper down a path of poverty, despair, and decrepitude.