Ending Homelessness Is Hard. Talking About It Is Harder.

This article does not represent the opinions of my employer.

I’m spending three weeks in Denver working with colleagues and the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) to help MDHI make better use of its data in providing social services including housing to the metropolitan area’s homeless population. I’ve learned a lot by talking to people who have devoted their time and energy to caring for the most vulnerable people in a city where temperatures dropped as low as 3ºF during my stay here. I’ve learned even more by talking to people in and visiting the community, not all of whom respond to homelessness with compassion at first.

I live in Seattle, the 18th-most populous city in the U.S., and home to the 3rd-largest homeless population in the country. I appreciate the irony of sending me away from Seattle to address a homeless crisis. At the same time, I’m not sure whether Seattle has an organization like MDHI to coordinate responses among our region’s service providers. I do know that there are many factors that effect a housing crisis, including rapid population growth and housing price increases; exclusionary zoning, which forbids even a two-family house from being built on most urban land; and a decline in public health services since the 1980s. Homelessness also takes many forms, including people living in a vehicle, living on the street, and even living inside but without a permanent housing arrangement. Many homeless persons are effectively invisible to the broader society — for example, an MDHI staff member pointed out that the hotel where I’m staying employs people experiencing homelessness.

Earlier this year I decided to leave a couple of local forums because of “othering,” a creation of divisions between people who belong in my community and people who do not. I’ve had conversations with local people about the work I’m in town to do, and it’s remarkable how quickly a person can jump to othering as a means of short-circuiting a more detailed conversation. “We’re turning into California,” a museum worker said to me, lamenting the outdoor encampments that are clearly visible from MDHI’s office in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. A guest at my hotel confidently stated that Seattle’s homeless population is due to other cities busing their homeless people in. (While busing does occur, most homeless people in Seattle formerly lived in a home in the local area.)

My time in Denver started with a small conference downtown called the Built for Zero Learning Session, run by Community Solutions, who states in bold type on their home page that “Homelessness is solvable.” On the application for my company’s project, for which Community Solutions is a partner, one of the questions was “Do you think ending homelessness is possible?” Ending homelessness means measuring the flow of clients into service providers and out to housing in a continuum of care (CoC) and declaring “Functional Zero” when the outflow equals or exceeds the inflow. It’s not reasonable to expect any CoC to sustain zero homeless people, but reaching this equilibrium is an important step that the Built for Zero project celebrates. I learned a lot just by observing the sessions and presentations at the conference, which drew from many of the dozens of CoCs with whom Community Solutions works, including from Nassau and Suffolk Counties in New York, where I grew up. The help that my colleagues and I have provided to MDHI will make their data analysis more useful, but there is much work that is left to do, particularly by the compassionate men and women on the ground who work directly with clients in bad situations.

I appreciate that Community Solutions, while cognizant of the human toll of homelessness, remains staunchly positive. CoCs that have attained Functional Zero or that have come close (for example, less than 10 away from Functional Zero) received special recognition at the conference. I reject the notion that homeless organizations seek to perpetuate homelessness, the so-called “homeless-industrial complex,” in the interest of fattening their bottom lines. Punishing, sweeping away, and imprisoning a homeless family costs far more than it would to build a supportive home for them, and yet there is still a call for punishment. In my Seattle City Council district, “public safety” is the newest phrase to be coopted for such a movement; I saw one of the two final candidates for my district’s seat insist that homeless people represent a threat not only to themselves, but to others in the community, multiple times at a recent public forum. That same candidate expressed concern that without enough public trust in the police, vigilantism may rise — a shocking thing to hear from a candidate for public office, yet in the age of social media advocacy, a credible possibility. Even Starbucks, which unlike Amazon had publicly stayed silent about this year’s Seattle City Council elections, is now planning a “Wake Up and Vote” event at 10 of its Seattle stores to advocate for public-safety-minded candidates.

Without falling into the trap of arguing for “civility” in public discourse about homelessness, one takeaway from this trip is that the problem is widespread, deeply rooted, and has no one-size-fits-all cure. Some people need full-time treatment for chronic health issues. Some need one-time assistance to pay for groceries or an unexpected expense. Many need a place to store their possessions securely while they seek a job. All need to be treated not as an æsthetic blight but as members of a community who deserve care and respect.