Homeless encampments are a common sight along Coleman Avenue in San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.
Homeless encampments are a common sight along Coleman Avenue in San Jose. File photo.

    There was a time in the not so distant past when the topic of homelessness was not the soup du jour of so many council chambers, community meetings, and letters to the editor. The issue has always been around, of course, but the intense focus on what we are or aren’t doing to meet the greatest challenge of our generation simply wasn’t at the center of our collective unconscious.

    There are plenty of reasons why that has changed in recent years, underscored perhaps by the financial fallout of the Great Recession to the total shutdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the reality is now it’s front and center for all to see, with a widening wealth gap and a dearth of affordable housing options making matters worse everyday. The devastating impact of people living and dying on our streets is discussed around the dinner table and from the dais and almost everyone has some common agreement that the current situation is untenable.

    What to do about it, however, is rapidly becoming a hot center of debate. And despite the volumes of research and evidence that the primary approach today — “Housing First” — is by far the most effective approach to permanently ending a person’s homelessness, there is a growing contingent of quasi-public figures and questionable actors actively trying to discredit this work.

    Much of the recent surge of this puzzling propaganda that is appearing throughout the nation can largely be attributed to a single source: the Cicero Institute — a conservative think tank based out of Austin, Texas, that seems to be singularly devoted right now to stigmatizing the most vulnerable people and making the issue of homelessness largely a criminal matter.

    The group conceals its intentions under a banner of compassion, but the reality is the draft legislation that it’s pushing in states around the country leads with enforcement and punitive measures, all designed primarily to push people out of sight and divest from housing strategies that might actually help to make a lasting difference. And in the long run, we already know all too well that trying to brush the problem under the rug doesn’t solve anything.

    Unfortunately, the rhetoric coming out of this machine resonates with a lot of voters that are simply fed up with what’s going on in their communities. And as opposed to talking about the deep and systemic investments needed to really make a change, it’s far easier to buy into an ideology that places the blame solely at the feet of folks with no place to call home and falsely claims we can do things faster and cheaper through vehicles like mass shelter, institutionalization and incarceration that have never worked before.

    But because the message they have created is sticking so well, now we are seeing proposed legislation in California like Senate Bill 31. If passed, the bill would make it a crime to sit, lie, sleep, or inhabit public places that are deemed “sensitive” by a vague and undefined set of criteria. Laws like this are nothing new and have been tried and failed (or deemed unconstitutional) many times before, but despite the broad coalition of opposition to this bill, there’s still plenty of interest in the specious promise that somehow this new law might help get people off the streets.

    The severity of this crisis outside is making everyone desperate for an answer. And when you have politicians running around seeking the new silver bullet for their constituents and picking up disinformation threads from well-funded groups, you can imagine how easy it is to start heading down the wrong path.

    So that’s where we are today. What we should be doing is studying history, following the data, and developing mutually reinforcing strategies that make our system stronger for every member of our community. The foundation is already there, too, we just need to keep moving forward together. So when you hear someone say that we need to lock more people up or that affordable housing won’t help to end or prevent homelessness, just think about who paid to deliver you that particular message.

    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.

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