Monday, July 12, 2010

An Important Week for Homeless Issues

It was a weekend paved with the best of intentions to organize several topics and write about them, but work and my son crashing his car this past Thursday (he's fine, we'll see about the car) prevented a lot of this from happening. Here we are as another week begins, and it feels full of possibilities on a number of fronts. Here's just one:

The week ahead will provide a number of opportunities to participate with and/or observe those charged with oversight in government, or of one of the numerous organizations assisting homeless individuals, as they continue to work together to address the problem of homelessness across the Grand Junction metropolitan area.

Before dismissing this as just talk with a nebulous level of commitment or action, remember what was going on a year ago. The City of Grand Junction had just been rebuffed in an attempt to criminalize panhandling and solicitation. Many battle lines that lay hidden to many in the community were starting to become a focal point for scrutiny and comment.

Fast forward through an effort by the City to reach out to homeless advocates and service providers to craft legislation that, while flawed, addressed the safety issues associated with panhandling in medians, both real and perceived. Factor in a difficult winter by Grand Junction standards, and the emergence of groups and individuals displaying a commitment to bring attention to, and address, issues pertaining to homelessness in ways not previously seen.

Enter this spring and summer, and what was the potential for more discontent between the homeless and advocacy groups, government, and law enforcement has instead become an opportunity for real progress in improving the manner and availability of services for homeless individuals and families.

The revelations concerning police misconduct toward homeless individuals that continue to emerge, and the leadership displayed by Grand Junction's police chief in addressing them, are but just one of the developments that is injecting new people, ideas, and solutions into the ongoing struggle to address the needs of these populations.

I have some more ideas about this that I'm writing about in more detail, but in the meantime here are at least three opportunities this week to observe, and in some cases sit in on, the process:

City Council Committee on Homeless and Transient Issues
Tuesday, July 13, 12:00 PM, Grand Junction City Hall

When I contacted City administration to obtain the date and time of this apparently nascent committee's meeting, it was stated rather pointedly that while this meeting is open to the public, the committee will be taking no public testimony. Still, I'm thinking that the presence of a significant number of interested citizens can serve as a reminder to Council of the level of community interest in what at least one level of government thinks about the issue.

The City's current Mayor, Teresa Coons, has long been an ally of the social service and non-profit infrastructure that addresses homelessness here. That's a start, but it will be interesting to see how the remainder of Council interacts with each other and their constituents on these issues.

Beyond Charity Work Session
Wednesday, July 14, 9:30 AM, Homeward Bound Shelter (2853 North Ave.)

This is a continuation of the work sessions that began last week in response to the brainstorming session held in late May. I attended both, and began to see players new and old looking at where we were in addressing homeless issues nearly 10 years ago, through the eyes of a planning document that can be read here.

Other things that I saw last week included the positioning of certain groups in the room around what appear to be two core philosophies in dealing with those in need of housing: Continuum of Care, around which many federal funding programs have been built, and Housing First, a comparatively new philosophy that seeks to remove the bureaucratic and psychological stigmas surrounding the provision of housing to those who need it. I'll have more to say about this in the near future.

Equally interesting in observing the alignment of those in attendance is noting the absence of those whose presence at the table is critical to both consensus and assuring effective service delivery. Colorado West Mental Health, the agency charged with providing the lion's share of mental health and substance abuse services in Mesa County, has not sent a representative to the first two Beyond Charity work sessions. Let's hope that changes this week.

Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless - Monthly Meeting
Thursday, July 15, 10:00 AM, Homeward Bound Shelter

One noteworthy point brought up at the first Beyond Charity session was a need for strong, centralized coordination of service provision by a disparate and varied number of organizations, for whom homelessness occupies a varying degree of priority in their overall mission.

These organizations attempt to coordinate and communicate their activities through the Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless. Their monthly meeting, typically the third Thursday of each month, affords these groups the opportunity to engage in this collaborative activity. I've not been to one of these meetings previously, but I hope to be there later this week.

As with any gathering of groups such as this, the internal politics that establish administrative control of the organization can at times translate itself to tacit control of how certain issues are framed, prioritized, and debated within the confines of the organization's internal structure. I've heard from more than one source that there are concerns about this within the Coalition membership. It will be interesting to observe it firsthand.

Before concluding, it's important to also note that the Federal government's focus on homelessness may be intensifying with last month's release of a comprehensive report by the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. The Executive Summary is a must-read for anyone even a little bit interested in this issue.

Also, check out yesterday's edition of the ongoing Washington Post series Five Myths. The problem isn't going away, but it is changing, and our response to it needs to recognize and address those changes to have any chance of effectiveness.

Finally, as a Pittsburgh native I must recognize fellow blogger Gene Kinsey for his post yesterday about the Sentinel's Sunday Page One story on young professionals entering the non-profit sector. He invoked Andrew Carnegie, whose extraordinary example of philanthropy may be duplicated by such modern-day business icons as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. As a Pittsburgher, I also have to recognize that Carnegie amassed his considerable wealth in ways that would be questionable in today's business and labor environment.

Gene wanted to frame Carnegie's example as a defense of free market capitalism; I would respond that while it is that vital engine that fuels the private philanthropy and governmental allocations that wind up helping needy populations, its effectiveness is reduced if the manner in which such resources are gathered is irresponsible in relationship to the public good. One need look no further than Wall Street or the Gulf of Mexico to see examples of this.

Have a great week ahead.

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