Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Advocating for Mutual Respect and Communication in Solving Homelessness in Dallas
At a recent nonprofit event, during a conversation with someone affiliated with the sponsoring organization, that individual began to speak negatively — and not quietly — about the performance of an agency partnering with her own on a large project. Attacking the same problem, the two agencies are using somewhat differing philosophies. One seems to be effective with a certain segment of the targeted population, but not all. The other, using a variant approach, seems to be having some success with a slightly different group. I listened to her perspective, and, when I nodded reflectively but didn’t immediately and fully agree, she seemed a little offended. I found the whole conversation very dispiriting. Can social service really be an unhappy competition among approaches and still succeed?
When we implement within our own organization an approach to ending homelessness and poverty that seems to work, it’s easy to think: this is the answer. The concomitant of that is: we found it, through our own experience, and it represents the only valid point of view. But, in truth, there is not ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that’s a panacea to these overarching issues. Different approaches are necessary, combined into a mosaic of complementarity. As those who know homeless people are aware: the solutions to homelessness are as as complex as the number of individuals who are homeless. All solutions, even brilliant ones, are “One size fits some.”
Last week I was having coffee with a group of friends. One is a longtime South Dallas civil rights activist, and another a politician. The politician, someone who has not been closely involved with the homeless community, said to me: “Listen to this idea for ending homelessness. A co-op where homeless people live for a year. No money is exchanged. They work for credits and learn life skills and how to run a business, and in exchange are provided for during that time. At the end, they know how to live in society and have earned enough credits to get a job and an apartment. Don’t you think that would work to end homelessness?” “It’s a good idea,” I said, “I think it would work for a certain number of people.’ Still, he was convinced this was The Solution — in theory, it sounded so logical. The problem though, as I see it, is that it does not take into account the ‘psychology of the individual,’ to steal a phrase from my favorite writer, humorist P.G. Wodehouse.
My friend the civil rights’ leader, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to go out many times in the past with mobile feeders of the homeless, meeting and interacting with people who live on the street. He immediately ‘got’ that a good theory and a workable solution are two entirely different creatures.
Suppose we develop an approach that works for our own organization in attacking a social problem, and we find that we have an impact on the problem at hand. Does that mean the philosophy we develop along the way is the only viable one?
One agency learns that having volunteers from prosperous parts of town come to the low-income community where they operate in order to ‘get a hit of poverty’ is demeaning to the community and does not work with their vision of what they want to achieve and are accomplishing. Does that mean that all occasional volunteering is bad? No.
Right down the street will be an agency which could not survive without groups of volunteers who come, work and sometimes never return. The mission of each group is different. Each attacks a portion of a big problem, say inner city poverty and/ or homelessness, with an approach that works for them. Each is good. Each has grown from the ground up an organization with an effective approach IN THEIR ARENA.
The food service program at the Bridge, for example, could not run without a strong, vibrant and often-changing volunteer base, because serving over 2600 meals a day is a tremendous task, and the same volunteer force could not show up three times a day to do it. So the Stewpot, which runs it, has recruited and funneled over 3000 people into the Meal Services program at the Bridge since it opened at the end of May. And if that volunteer base did not consist of church groups, some from out of town, which might or might not ever come again, the work would not get done.
Who knows the impact that one visit, one encounter with poverty or homelessness may have on an individual volunteer? Because we never see them again in that setting does not mean their experience ended there. Perhaps they reflected on their experience and are blazing trails elsewhere in the city, or in the world.
Contrast that to an inner city after-school program which clearly benefits more from a limited number of committed workers, who might preferably come from the community in which the program is based, in order to form lasting and mentoring relationships with the children participating in the program. Random volunteers coming and going there is not a desirable remedy to the man and woman-power need.
Both approaches are good, both approaches fill the need-sized gap. The problem comes when we think that our way is the only way and don’t respect the differing approach of the other.
There is an ‘establishment’ of homeless services in Dallas — the agencies that have been around for many years and have served beautifully and successfully a number of homeless individuals. And there is an approach somewhat new to Dallas, based upon ‘best practices’ research from other cities, that is being tried at the Bridge. The new is far from perfect, as has been widely reported. But if we already had all the answers to getting people off the streets and housed, we wouldn’t be having the discussion we’re having in Dallas right now about the approaches being tried at the Bridge, and we wouldn’t, in fact, need the Bridge itself.
Certain issues and problems that are occurring there now were predicted ahead of time by people advocating for the homeless. For example, planning for the facility was flawed in the number of beds allotted. Is this a surprise to anyone? It was widely talked about by homeless advocates before the Bridge opened. Why didn’t the ‘heads’ at the bridge realize that with between 6000 and 10,000 homeless people in Dallas county, 400 beds wouldn’t be enough? Or if they did, plan differently? I don’t know.
What about rules and regulations at the Bridge? Because a complete open-door policy has required some serious adjustment due to the predators who surround the homeless (again, a given with this population), does that mean we need to go back to the stringent requirements and limits of the previously-existing shelters, to paying for a bed, to turning people away when the quota for the night is filled, to booting them and their belongings out before dawn to spend the day on the street or at work? If we do that, we’re right back where we started.
I also agree with others who say that it is problematic that those running the Bridge have not, for the most part, served on the front lines in other homeless services, although they have certainly been involved long-term in homeless advocacy. There’s no question that management there is in a learning curve, and this too was expected by most people close to the homeless community.
To me, the most serious error being made by management at the Bridge doesn’t lie in their non-threatening, non-punitive approach to homeless individuals (those preying on the homeless are another matter entirely), but rather the difficulty for most people outside the Bridge to contact them. I know several people who have tried often and to no avail to get in touch with them in order to offer help. When the mayor was coming to visit recently, those of us making the arrangements, including the mayor’s own staff, had to go through the subcontractor for meal services, the Stewpot, in order to ever reach landfall with Bridge management! I think that’s a big problem, because as a wise person close to the situation said, when there’s a void of information and accessibility, it’s entirely likely that it will be filled with negatives.
[Inviting Mayor Leppert to the Bridge, by the way, initiated by homeless advocates outside Bridge management, was not done in order to do a snow job on politicians, but rather the opposite — to give the mayor direct access to the homeless themselves — and that is exactly what happened. He spent the evening talking to them on his own, without management around him. He is smart enough to come to his own conclusions about how things are going, and I’m sure he will.]
I see no way to go back to limiting the number of people inside the Bridge gates without going back to arresting those who are outside, which is like going back to the dark ages. Sleeping on the lawn inside the campus on a mat is better than sleeping on the sidewalk, and it is safer, no matter what critics say. That is why people are doing it in such numbers. However, careful screening of those coming into the campus in order to make sure they are not predatory to the homeless population is essential and is apparently being done. Ditto whatever makes the campus safer.
But we should never forget what things were like in the past. The agencies that have existed in Dallas for years to help the homeless were doing fantastic work. And 6000 people still didn’t have a bed at night. Sorry, folks, but I in no way look back nostalgically at that situation. As is said in twelve-step programs, “Progress, Not Perfection.” I stick by my appraisal that we are making progress in Dallas: not perfect, fraught with setbacks, but progress nonetheless.
I have not been homeless, and that limits my perspective. What I have done, consistently for five years, is talk to homeless people themselves, ask them about their lives and their opinions about things. I have also sought the advice of people who work directly with them and have studied to some extent the ‘best practices’ in other cities. I have purposely not been a ‘joiner’ of organizations, with the exception of sitting on one advisory board. I want to keep the perspective of an outsider.
I propose something radical. Why don’t we talk to each other, listen to each other, be available to each other, as individuals and as organizations? Communicate. Listen to people who know, who have done the work before. Ask everyone involved, then make our best decision.
That’s what I was trying to do with the individual at the nonprofit meeting. I wanted to hear her perspective, and it was an important one which contained information that I did not have. But it was also biased… in favor of her own group, with no quarter given to any other. If we can take off our earmuffs and listen what others have to say, maybe we will get finally somewhere.
We are where we are with the Bridge, and the problems are significant. But to equate it and its challenges in any way to the Day Resource Center is simply ludicrous. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s still light years ahead of where we’ve been. And, for the most part, homeless people themselves will tell you that, if you ask them in a spirit of genuine inquiry.
We need to support the Bridge, while continuing to help it improve. And the Bridge management needs to let us.
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