When homelessness starts to dominate politics you know the election season isn’t too far away. And this year, with concern for the unhoused polling as a top issue, you can be sure that we’ll be hearing plenty of plans on what can be done now to solve this crisis on our streets.
Some of this attention can be good. There’s no question that we need to devote more resources, energy and focus to this work. And the latest signed package of legislation out of the state — a $22 billion suite of bills that will result in 84,000 new affordable housing units, including 44,000 units for the most vulnerable folks — is a great example of how we can use this political moment to really move the needle.
Unfortunately, the flipside of getting things done for people who need the help ends up being a strange brew of stereotypical tropes, reactive measures and just a little too much magical thinking. More often than not, the end result of all this clamor is more public confusion, wasted resources and far too many starts and stops.
How do we avoid all of this? First off, we need to stop making the poorest people in our society the object of hate and the root of all our problems.
Every time a homeless person is blamed for trash and blight or an affordable housing development is characterized as negatively impacting property values, we perpetuate decades of discriminatory thinking that are flat out lies. It’s easy to target the voiceless in sound bites and condemn them for everything that’s not going according to plan, when what we should be doing is looking at the broken systems in place and figuring out what needs to be changed.
Second, let’s ditch the notion that there is some amazing device not yet employed that can end homelessness tomorrow. There’s no secret formula or unrealized antidote that will give us what we’ve all been missing for so long. When new solutions are proposed it’s more often than not just a repackaging of old ideas. And while it sounds good to come up with big and bold proposals, the lengthy distraction can end up hurting the cause more than helping by taking people down old, windy, dead-end roads.
With new money and support, we can definitely make a significant difference, but it’s going to come through evidence-based approaches like vouchers, housing and services combined with collaboration at all levels from the public and private sectors. If policymakers are looking for a template to focus on real change, the new Heading Home campaign to end family homelessness offers up a vehicle where we can publicly come together in a smart way and work toward significant impact.
Lastly, please remember that these are people’s lives you’re talking about.
The gamification and weaponization of poverty, homelessness and suffering is sickening, to say the least. We’re also not counting widgets in this work and there are countless stories of hardworking parents, seniors struggling to pay the rent, disabled adults lacking the ability to work, and many others who need help and compassion. We need to take the time to listen to them, raise up their perspectives and try to find answers with them to make our community better as a whole.
At the end of the day, if we can’t incorporate the voice of those with lived experience in our political platforms to end homelessness, it’s really nothing more than a lot of hot air.
San José Spotlight columnist Ray Bramson is the Chief Operating Officer at Destination: Home, a nonprofit that works to end homelessness in Silicon Valley. His columns appear every second Monday of the month. Contact Ray at [email protected] or follow @rbramson on Twitter.