Here in Austin, where I live, it’s not easy to travel more than a few miles without seeing yard signs calling for the removal of our center-left mayor, Steve Adler. The Recall Adler campaign is the work of a local group called Take Back Austin. Although the group’s social media pages are littered with far-right talking points, oddly, they seem to draw membership from across the political spectrum. The target of their ire is the rejiggering of some local ordinances that made it legal (well, really, just slightly less illegal) for people experiencing homelessness to camp in public spaces. If their rhetoric is to be believed, then the camping ordinance reboot has flipped on the death clock for our city and will ultimately lead to a feces and needle soaked takeover of every park, street corner, and underpass in town.
And, frankly, I get it. Having to look square in the eyes of the most extreme manifestation of poverty sucks. Homelessness in general scores about as high as anything on the things that suck meter. On this, Take Back Austin and I can agree.
But I know something they don’t know. There is nothing new here. We’re looking at the same thing that’s been happening in the shadows for years. For those of us that have spent much of our lives traversing the fringes, the existence of homeless encampments is simply not the same shock to the system. Homelessness sucks just as much now as it did prior to the ordinance tweak, and recalling Steve Adler is not going to change that. Homelessness has ballooned nationally and represents the vastest and complex humanitarian crisis facing our country today. Politics aside, do these people really believe that removing the mayor of an average-sized city is the fix this issue needs? Whether you love or hate Steve Adler, he did not create poverty or homelessness and his removal (no matter how prudent anyone thinks it is) is not going to solve it.
This, of course, begs the question of how we actually got here and what can be done to course correct. At the risk of being a little over-obvious, the only correction that’s worth pursuing is to just go ahead and end homelessness once and for all. As the founder and Executive Director of a homelessness service organization, I will be the first to tell you that organizations like mine shouldn’t even exist. I used to be a little more cynical. I used to say that as long as we have capitalism, we’ll have poverty, and as long as we have poverty, we’ll have homelessness, and as long as we have homelessness, we’ll need homeless service providers. But I was wrong.
When we step back and look at what homelessness response systems do, one of their primary functions is to prioritize individuals for access to the scraps. The leftovers of the housing stock in our communities, and the minuscule numbers of permanent homes that those systems manage to bring online. Imagine, if you will, a world where prioritization is a moot point because we come together and through courageous political action and social activism are able to achieve a return to pre-1980’s level of investment in public housing.
As we watch the world respond to systemic racism, it gives me great hope in our ability to tackle big system-level problems. Problems like the terrible state of community-based mental health services, the way the criminal justice system swallows up the poor, and the hyper-commodification of healthcare and housing.
In the 1970’s we deinstitutionalized the treatment of mental illness. And when all those institutions’ funding went away, it was never fully reinvested in community-based services and public housing. Then along came the 80’s, the Reagan revolution, and the further defunding of public housing and SSI, and onto the street people drifted in the thousands. Then hundreds of thousands. And this word Homelessness entered the popular vocabulary. Many of us are too young to remember this, and those who aren’t seem to have forgotten that homelessness, as it exists today, is a new phenomenon. It didn’t really exist before the 1980’s.
And, boy, have we made an industry of it. Homelessness services represent a multi-billion dollar industry that is so littered with waste it’s a wonder that any actual assistance reaches any actual people at all. Overly restrictive funding requirements and endless piles of reporting paperwork swallow up resources that could be used to build housing. We’re so obsessed with studying the problem, we’re forced to process the people we serve into endless piles of data, which ostensibly help shape public policy, but hasn’t served to move the needle on this issue in a decade. Everyone loves the idea of Housing First as a concept but the reality for most programs is that housing is the end-goal. And what we’re left with is an industry whose success hinges on warehousing people in substandard housing.
So, I challenge you to imagine a world where housing is the first step. Where housing is the easy part, and the work we do can be about healing and building community. Homelessness, as it exists today, is the inevitable result of a great many societal ills. Housing is not going to fix all of them. In fact, many people do and will continue to be homeless for years after moving into housing. There’s some deep trauma out there inside many of our brothers and sisters that housing will never fix. But I refuse to believe that getting to the point where all people have access to housing requires a solution half as complicated and convoluted as the systems we’ve created to respond to homelessness.
So let’s start there. Let’s push our leaders, both in government and the private non-profit sector to cut the shit and make the huge investments in housing that we need to lick this thing. We need to stop pretending that housing the poor is a good investment opportunity for the private market or viewing it strictly through the lens of economic impact. It is going to be expensive. And until it’s done, we will have to continue to fund the programs that keep people alive on the streets. But all of us need to be moving towards building community-centric dignified housing if we ever expect to lift people off of the streets in the numbers necessary to call ourselves a country that cares about anything.
And, face it, Steve Adler is not the one standing in the way.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Texas Homeless Network or its members.