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Opinion: Homeless services don’t end homelessness


Homelessness is often described as a problem we must solve—and Los Angeles city and county now have expensive plans to do so.

As someone who has spent eight years working in nonprofit homeless services and studying homelessness, I’ve learned homelessness is also an industry designed to manage costs rather than challenge the mechanisms that create and maintain homelessness.

As George Mason Professor Craig Willse shows in his book, “The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States”, homeless services don’t end homelessness; they manage it. While the industry is dominated by nonprofits, there is money to be made, and we have accepted the reality that homeless services are professionalized, and offer career opportunities and—sadly—a certain security.

Homelessness is not routine—it’s a deeply personal experience of suffering, and its causes are largely systemic. Many of the folks that I’ve met through my work became homeless because of the way their life and choices were constrained by forces outside their control.

Of course, many people I serve have high psychiatric needs and chronic health conditions, but I don’t buy into the notion—common in popular, policy, and academic interpretations of homelessness—that these conditions are the primary cause of homelessness.

I fear we have constructed an imaginary chronically homeless person—mentally ill, with substance abuse and other issues. That hides the structures behind their troubles—a criminal justice system that swallows up poor people, health care systems that underserve the poor and mentally ill, housing markets that don’t provide enough safe and affordable options. Framing homelessness as a pathology reinforces the legitimacy of the industry and places the blame for housing deprivation on the individual.

As a graduate student in applied anthropology at CSU Long Beach, I did life history interviews with people at Lamp Community, a nonprofit homeless services organization in Los Angeles. I found that life-long courses of trauma and poverty caused housing insecurity that led people to become homeless. I also found that housing insecurity remains even once a person makes it from the streets to supportive housing. Of course, the committed work of staff in providing services and intervention can sometimes help them keep their housing. But all such efforts are temporary, since supportive housing, like the rest of the homeless industry, fails to confront the inequality, poverty, health care, and other systems through which homelessness exists.

When the city of Los Angeles declared a state of emergency in October 2015 and committed $100 million to address homelessness, I couldn’t help but see it through this more skeptical lens.  Of course there will be folks who benefit from the infusion of millions of dollars into the homeless services industry. But expanding the industry doesn’t bring us closer to ending homelessness. So the state of emergency and funds appear more aimed at masking the visible reminders of our disparate economic and social systems.

As downtown Los Angeles gentrifies and a palpable tension between the newer tenants and those living on the streets grows, the pressure to better manage the homeless population mounts.

Many advocates have argued that housing should be considered a human right, but in our society it is first and foremost a commodity. Still many advocates adopt the argument that housing the homeless is cheaper than leaving them on the street, as a way of getting new policies and more funding. This demonstrates how effectively economics dominates the discourse of homelessness. Take the logic to the extreme, and you understand the horror of such thinking: If homelessness and costs shift so that abandoning homeless to the streets is cheaper, should we stop trying to find them housing?

Of course I want to make a difference. That’s what drew me to the field of homeless services in the first place. But the poverty and trauma I’ve seen have convinced me that we are failing. The nonprofit industry and all our emergencies will not end homeless.

What will? Real advocacy that isn’t compromised by the funding of an industry. Advocacy that produces deep changes in how our economic system creates and responds to poverty, how we create housing, how people get the health care they need.

While I can focus on the day-to-day work—the great team I collaborate with, the amazing people I’ve met during my time in the field, and the ways we exercise compassion and attempt to lessen the harshness of our broader system—I’d rather simultaneously confront the hypocrite that I’ve become. I can’t help but encourage others caught in the web—advocates, case managers, clinicians, administrators, academics, politicians—to do the same.

Tully MacKay-Tisbert studied applied anthropology at CSU Long Beach and currently works for an organization in Los Angeles that provides support to homeless and vulnerable individuals.

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It would be nice if we had a bare minimum of housing, maybe something the size of a cubicle/jail cell, with a cot, sink, and toilet, that rented for $100-$200/month, and one could qualify for a voucher if your circumstances warranted it.  It would not be perfect, but it would be a start, and some would not even want to take up this option, and would prefer to live on the streets.

That's similar to the Utah model except Utah just gives the housing away.

I wonder if other states could have success with it too. 

In the history of urban architecture there used to be wide agreement that city-dwellers -- rich and poor alike -- didn't really need kitchens, private bathrooms, or very much space for their belongings. Restaurants or boardinghouse tables, bath houses, coffeeshops, bars, and parks met a lot of needs for public-private space. Unfortunately in the United States a combination of do-gooders and NIMBYs decided that they would get rid of all these options in the name of upgrading real estate. Not surprisingly, homelessness became a problem at the same time. Read up on it here:

Oh and people who used to run boardinghouses can now use AirBnB instead. The difference is of course that boardinghouses cater to poorer residents, while AirBnB caters to visitors. Among other things it is very much easier to avoid getting in a situation where a tenant would have to be evicted slowly with the AirBnB option.

This month I met someone who was renting a bed in a bunkbed on Airbnb. 

That's not even renting a room. It's renting a bed. 

That SPOA link is very good btw. 

Interesting, never thought of the boarding house angle.

People today don't even realize there used to be a lot more options than "awesome house with all the amenities and at least one room per person, or the streets". Even with a lot fewer residents, cities in the past could not have grown without these options. If you read old books or watch old movies, you see a lot of boardinghouses, single occupancy hotels, renting a room in an apartment, etc. Even a considerable number of the high-class apartment buildings in New York City used to be built on the assumption than the residents would never want to cook: they would have upscale cafeterias for the residents, or everyone would eat out. They didn't need washer-dryers, they'd send their laundry out. They sure didn't need parking for cars, they would take public transit. Remember that these quasi-public services were the "modern" alternative to having many servants in the home.

This is what life is becoming for the employees of high-tech companies. I look at the Google and Facebook employees, especially the young males from China and India who grew up in cultures where they have literally never turned on the stove. Whether we are going "back to the future" or joining a more global urban culture, American zoning laws and cultural expectations are outdated and holding back equitable progress in the cities.

Thank you for that perspective. You are changing my thoughts too. 

In general more different housing options is a good thing, right?

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