Homelessness Marathon blog

... ending homelessness isn't a matter of charity, but a matter of changing the way our society is structured. -- Homelessness Marathon founder, Jeremy Weir Alderson, aka Nobody.

Monday, February 8, 2010

An Odd Thought

An odd thought came to me, and it brought me back to this blog.  The thought was "What if Detroit listened to me?"  This thought came to me because I submitted an Op-Ed to the Detroit Free Press.  I told them that it was kind of a manifesto for the upcoming broadcast.  I got a reply from an editor saying she was interested in the piece.  Like everyone in Detroit, she wanted to know who I was, and she also wanted to know about the broadcast.  I sent her some information, and I haven't heard anything back yet.  I can tell you that if you ain't used to disappointment, you ain't used to being a writer, but whatever happens, she got me thinking.
          The piece was about why we should pay attention to poverty.   She said that might be all well and good, but if I was going to say that, then I should say what I thought "the most constructive actions" would be.  The thought never even dawned on me that anyone in Detroit might offer me a platform to declaim on what I think ought to be done.  I can assure you that I told her I would consider it an opportunity.  That's when it occurred to me that, you know, I've got this blog, and if anybody's interested, why couldn't I just set myself down and write right here about a few most constructive actions?  
          So I will set down here what I think the City of Detroit (and cities around the country) should do, but in making this declaration, I must stress that these are my views alone.  These are not the official views of the Homelessness Marathon, which has published its own "Declaration of Principles."  More important, the fact that I hold these views doesn't mean that these will be the only views presented on our broadcast.   I am in the minority.  I think anyone following discussions about homelessness in America will know that the positions I espouse, or positions akin to them, are gaining ground, but many guests on our broadcast, including many homeless people, probably will not fully share my views.
          So with that disclaimer, here is my six point plan for Detroit:

1 - First do no harm.  Stop causing evictions by shutting off water or anything else.  This freeze can be for a limited term, say a year, with the understanding that people will not be evicted again until there is some alternative plan in place for them.

2 - During the period of this eviction moratorium, the city should commission a study as to whether eviction is even cost effective.  This doesn't have to be some jackass commission that drones on interminably.  A good reporter could prepare a dossier on this in a month.  The queston is, what happens when people get evicted?  Do emergency room health care costs go up?  I believe that more than one study has shown that emergency room costs go down when homeless people are housed, so it stands to reason that emergency room costs go up when housed people are made homeless.  The costs of policing go up too as does the cost of remedial education for children made homeless in this way.  Knowing the relative costs involved doesn't alter the moral imperatives, but it may make them easier to attain, and beyond that, having a lot of, "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" type discussions creates the misimpression that poverty issues are only of philosophic and not practical importance.  For all the City of Detroit knows (or pretty much any American city knows), it may be shooting itself in the financial foot every time it evicts someone.  Isn't it a no-brainer for the City to at least find out?

3 - Adopt a "Safe Address For Everyone" (SAFE) approach to municipal homelessness.  Leaving your own people to die in the streets so destroys the soul of a city that one wonders how anyone thinks Detroit can have a renaissance just by bringing in developers and walling off the rich part of town from everyone else.  These are the schemes of quick buck artists not civic boosters.  If anyone was asking me, I would say that Detroit should lead the nation by looking around and saying, "We've seen the results of people just watching out for themselves and we're not going to do it anymore."  Oh God, wouldn't I like to see it.  Detroit, you could be raising the torch of hope for our entire nation as surely as the Statue of Liberty beckoned to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

4 - Immediately implement SAFE policies, aimed at getting all of the homeless people into safe spaces. This work must begin immediately, because people are dying and it can't wait, so a great deal of the planning and cost analysis will have to be done on the fly.   A multiplicity of approaches will have to be tried.  In some places, tent cities can be erected (there's plenty of vacant land) with a central warming shelter for when it's too cold.  In some places, people can be moved into abandoned homes.  In some places, abandoned businesses can be turned into dormitories.  In some places the city can build a trailer park or pay landowners to host trailers.  In some places, apartments can be turned into group residences, and so on.

5 - Pay for getting everyone into a safe space.  There are lots of twists and turns to the question of how much this will cost, because, for one thing, it is not altogether clear that a SAFE policy will cost the city a cent.  Here are some reasons:

          - Getting everyone into a SAFE space will probably reduce emergency room costs, and the crime rate is likely to drop (though there would surely be policing costs involved with the new SAFE spaces -- whether tent cities, dormitories or whatever, these spaces should be treated as regular neighborhoods with regular patrols).

          - The City could open the door to volunteer labor.  If it wasn't for volunteer labor, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi wouldn't be nearly as rebuilt as it is.  People I talked with down there variously estimated the contribution of the volunteers at 80-95% of the help with housing construction.  There's a lot of people who would like to help rebuild Detroit, too, if they only knew what to do, and this would give them some direction.

          - A SAFE policy could bring business to Detroit.  I'm a New Yorker, and I must say that, as much as I love New York, it amazes me that all you had to do was sing a jingle about "I love New York, " and people came.  The adoption of a SAFE policy in Detroit would attract tourists who want to see the work in progress.  It would attract capital from private donors and foundations that want to be a part of this new development.  And Detroit will have succeeded in doing what every business-minded city in the country wants to do, which is to make itself stand out.  And what a way to stand out!  What better climate could there be for attracting business than to be the city where people are committed to taking care of each other and there's a new spirit of enthusiasm about the future?

If Detroit has to pay out some money at first or even in the long run to implement a SAFE policy, the City does have some budgetary resources it can apply.  Giving everyone a chance to survive is more important than filling minor potholes, and if most people feel that way, a few bumps on the road to a better city won't be so painful.  Detroit can also take money away from municipal expenditures on  permanent housing, because getting everyone into a safe space is more important than getting a few people into permanent housing, especially when, as is currently the case, a small amount of permanent housing is purchased at the cost of leaving thousands of people on the streets.  Most funding for permanent housing doesn't come from the city, though, but from the State and Federal governments.  The City of Detroit should be prepared to impound those monies and other Federal monies to fulfill SAFE goals.    
          The idea of impounding money may seem radical, but when it comes to allocations for the poor, it's old hat.  Cities around the country have many times just been unable to figure out how on earth to spend money intended for the homeless, and the unspent monies have then gone back into general funds so that they could be used for stuff like picking up garbage in rich neighborhoods.  During the Reagan Administration, when Sam Pierce was the head of HUD, ten or twenty billion dollars intended for low-income housing were siphoned off to build golf courses and shopping malls for rich Republican donors.  In that case, Pierce's deputy and others went to prison, but that's the exception to the rule.  More recently, Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, impounded roughly six hundred million dollars worth of Community Block Development Grant funds intended for post-Katrina low-income housing and spent it on expanding the port at Gulfport.  Well, he hasn't gone to jail, and I don't see anyone putting Dave Bing in jail either, if he reverses this process and impounds Federal monies intended for other uses and actually spends them on the poor.

6 - As everyone in Detroit is getting into some kind of SAFE space, Detroit should have a conversation with itself about what comes next.  The steps I have outlined here are only a start.

There you have it.  With beliefs like these, some people will think I probably can't walk and chew gum at the same time, and, unfortunately, they'd be right.  The last time I chewed gum it pulled a crown out, so I can't even chew it sitting down anymore.

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