Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Politics of Need

There's the progress we have found
A way to talk around the problem
Building towered foresight
Isn't anything at all..

- R.E.M.
, "Fall On Me" (1986)

Leetsdale, PA - Spending time here in the places where Andrew Carnegie made his greatest mark on American society reminded me again of what Gene Kinsey wrote recently about the nature of philanthropy. I still disagree with the way he tried to use Carnegie's legacy to frame an argument for free market capitalism, but I do see his point about how powerful this type of wealth can be in cumulatively affecting lives.

In the context of the response of community members of this area to Michaela's illness and the hardships it created for her family, I have been able to see this power all too closely. It can be as simple as the loaf of zucchini bread that Leslie's neighbor brought over yesterday, or as complex as organizing a benefit event, which is happening for Michaela's family this Saturday.

This is the nature of the America I grew up in, and grew up from. People give freely of the resources they have for those who do not have, or are in need. The reasons can vary from one's individual faith to how they perceive the community in which they live. It's what neighbors do for neighbors, strangers for strangers, and families do for each other, regardless of how such a family is comprised. Blood may indeed be thicker than water, but no one can survive for long without both.

Shift focus to those who are alone, by choice or not, and find themselves in desperate need of the most fundamental things that most Americans take for granted; shelter, food, clothing. Add children to the mix and the problem becomes all the more disconcerting, along with those who served our country, and for whom we as a nation made a commitment to help in recognition of that service.

All across the country, these people are cared for by a symbiotic collection of human service agencies, who channel the individual, voluntary kindnesses of others, along with seeking out available funds and services from government-based programs, to provide some of these basic needs.

In Grand Junction, recent news events have combined with the current recession and a renewed sense of activism within the community to bring the social and human service infrastructure to a crossroads.

Over the last couple of months I have attempted to observe these agencies and other stakeholders in their efforts at re-focusing, coordinating, and self-governing. I've seen and heard things both promising and disturbing. Even in this short-term, sporadic observation both the tune and the game have changed. Here are some examples:
  • This past May, Grand Valley Peace and Justice began the process of facilitating ideas and gathering stakeholders to forge a new 10-year plan to address homelessness through its Beyond Charity initiative. At the first session, Grand Junction Mayor Teresa Coons was non-committal about the City's involvement, yet by July a City Council subcommittee dedicated to addressing these issues had been established and was having regular meetings. More about this further down.
  • In subsequent Beyond Charity meetings, two distinct schools of thought have emerged as to which one of two core philosophies will shape a new 10-year plan. These are Continuum Of Care (the current model) in which those in need of housing are provided it through different levels, i.e. emergency, transitional, and permanent, as they navigate the necessary assessment, treatment, and other service programs according to their individual needs. Think of this as sort of a 12-step plan for homelessness.
The other philosophy is Housing First, which advocates providing immediate, independent housing to those without it, and work to address the problems inherent to the homelessness afterward. To quote the Downtown Emergency Service Center in Seattle:
Housing First is based on two core convictions: 1. Housing is a basic human right, not a reward for clinical success, and 2. Once the chaos of homelessness is eliminated from a person’s life, clinical and social stabilization occur faster and are more enduring.
In these meetings, one advocate for Housing First that has stepped up and put forward persuasive arguments backed by reports and analysis is John Mok-Lamme, Pastor of Sojourners Christian Fellowship and a former director of the North Avenue homeless shelter. He and his son David gathered information on the successes and failures of Housing First initiatives in various major cities, including a successful ongoing effort in Denver.

One thing that I noticed about those cities that had successes in Housing First programs was the availability of ancillary social service programs, including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. I owe Colorado West Mental Health a bit of an apology; I have been critical here of their seeming inattention to their role as a stakeholder, but learned as part of these meetings that they are involved and active in the planning process.

That being said, I believe that Housing First has a better chance of succeeding, if only because the essential purpose is more in keeping with recognizing and maintaining the dignity of the individual involved. A critical component for success in Grand Junction remains the availability, on a reliable basis, or treatment, counseling, and other essential services to stabilize those homeless after they are placed in housing.

One other need addressed by several in attendance in May was a need for centralized administration of the resources brought to bear to address homelessness by all of the organizations in place in the Grand Valley. Those advocating this claimed that it would also allow for more consistent application of resources in accordance with an agreed-upon set of standards, and facilitate a more diligent and coordinated pursuit of grants and other funding mechanisms.

Most of these organizations are members of the Grand Valley Coalition for the Homeless, which for several years has seen leadership come from representatives of Grand Valley Catholic Outreach. As new players have entered the realm of advocating for the homeless, there appears to be some stated desire for change in the coalition's leadership, if only to achieve some equity in leadership among those involved, allow for a different leadership perspective, and thus encourage change in the collective manner in which these agencies operate.

Let's face facts; non-profits, like any other organizational structure, have individual agendas, rivalries, and interpersonal dynamics that rival their counterparts in for-profit businesses or government. As the dynamic changes, so must the common voice that speaks for organizations like the Coalition for the Homeless or Bridges Out of Poverty.

Enter the City into the mix, through their subcommittee. Though I've only been able to follow their deliberations through the reporting of Emily Anderson in the Sentinel, there is some rhetoric that presents both promise and concern for me. For example:

The goal of the subcommittee, according to Mayor Teresa Coons, is to separate the presumed majority of homeless people, those down on their luck and seeking support during tough economic times, from those living outdoors long-term or from other parts of the country...Coons said she would like to study how other communities have succeeded in helping various kinds of homeless people.

I wonder what kind of "separation" Mayor Coons has in mind. It's clear to me on the face of the problem that those living in camps by the river have a different set of problems than a single mother with 3 kids going from motel to motel.

City Attorney John Shaver told the council during its retreat (July 24) at Grand Junction Regional Airport. Shaver said some chronically homeless people are offered a bus ticket as a condition of their sentence in lieu of a stay in the crowded Mesa County Jail. “We had a man who wanted to leave but couldn’t get on a bus because of his dog and his bike,” Shaver said. “We figured out a way to ship him and his dog and his bicycle to where he wants to be".

This brings to mind one other idea that I researched several years ago, that being an agency akin to Travelers Aid International, whose mission statement is "to advance and support a network of human service provider organizations committed to assisting individuals and families who are in transition, or crisis, and are disconnected from their support systems."

With seed money from the City, an organization such as this could lend support in the way of services, transportation, clinical intervention, and/or just basic information and assistance to people who are traveling through, and/or become stranded in, Grand Junction.

Providing a visible presence at the Amtrak terminal, Airport, and Greyhound station could be a first step in identifying people in crisis, and assisting them along their way, while providing a first level of human services contact that might be absent from relocation or travel assistance provided on an anecdotal basis by the City.

This is something that I'll be working on as a suggestion to the Council subcommittee, along with my take on how Grand Junction's approach to homelessness should look over the next 10 years:

  • The City should take a leadership role in identifying stakeholders, service providers, and interested citizens, and develop an administrative function within City government to address the area's burgeoning and diverse human services infrastructure with cohesion, unified direction, and effective resource coordination. The Denver model that I've written about in the past seems to be a good place to start.

  • The various organizations need to partner with the City in completing their 10-year plan to address homelessness, while developing consensus on a philosophy and unified approach to service provision, as well as recognition that the homeless want to be able to have a voice that can be heard, and be able to help themselves as well. This has been the rallying cry behind newer faces in this debate, such as Angel Light, Inc. and Housing First! No More Deaths!
  • John Mok-Lamme framed some of the debate going on locally around the homeless issue with something very simple and profound. He said, "The right wants personal responsibility, and the left wants empowerment. They're both trying to get to the same place".

    It's been heartening to see the level of concern and compassion extended by a small suburban community toward Leslie and Gianna, both before and since Michaela's passing. We as citizens of Grand Junction, and a country that prides itself as "One Nation Under God", have a chance to leverage some powerful forces toward making our community a better place for everyone who wants to make a go at living here.

    Best wishes for good fortune and God's grace to everyone involved. Hey, that's you and me.

    1 comment:

    yukon said...

    I'm glad I came across this post, you write very eloquently. I've been involved in assistance and counseling with our cities homeless for several years, and it still surprises me the lack of civic understanding and commitment to their weakest citizens. Keep up the good fight, and god bless you.