After 14 years of sitting in hundreds of long public meetings discussing homelessness with public officials, homeless service executives, and community and charity leaders, I continue to be amazed how society has created such a complex approach to resolving homelessness.
Ten year plans, multiple-year homeless initiatives, homeless management information systems - billions of dollars invested. In the past thirty years, we've created a whole non-profit business sector that addresses homelessness.
Seems a bit excessive when I know the steps toward housing hurting people are simple.
If a man who is homeless walked into a small town in America, perhaps decades ago, the approach to the town's homelessness would be much different. I can picture the local sheriff, the town doctor, perhaps the neighborhood pastor, and a few other concerned townspeople huddling together to figure out how to help this hurting homeless man.
The faith congregation, local town council, and community leaders would surround the man with immediate housing, health care, and basic food. Then, they would figure out how to get him back on his feet.
Their response reflects the simple adage, "It takes a village." Their response reflects a sense of urgency, coupled with generous compassion. It was a response to a town crisis.
The hundreds of meetings I have sat through reflect of different approach to how society responds to homelessness today.
No sense of urgency. Leaders are making powerful, sometimes expensive, decisions without ever having the experience of speaking to a homeless person one-on-one. There is finger-pointing, blaming other jurisdictions, service agencies, and even blaming the people who are homeless.
Many times, our society just gives up. Sure, communities provide token services and housing. We set up a 50-bed homeless shelter, even though there might be 1,000 homeless people in the area. We invest millions of dollars in a couple of hundred permanent housing units, even though thousands of people are in need of housing.
Limited solutions are just a form of giving up. It is not a surprising response. The number of people on our streets can be overwhelming.
We also begin to see homelessness as a problem, not as a crisis. Our country is amazing when we shift in crisis mode. We graciously donate millions and millions of dollars, even during a difficult economy. We want to drop everything, and travel to the crisis to volunteer. Doctors, construction workers, lawyers, teachers mobilize quickly. Our country becomes a village.
But when we approach social issues, like homelessness, as a problem, we turn to bureaucracy, token responses, and sadly even finger-pointing.
Somehow we need to get back to our roots of how we respond to the need to house homeless people. Former Speaker of the House, Representative "Tip" O'Neil used to always say, "All politics is local." The fact that if a congressional representative doesn't take care of his district's local political issues, like pot holes or an under-performing school, he (or she) will lose his seat.
I see homelessness in the same way. The response to homelessness is local. The ten people sleeping in the nearby park or in the alleys between neighborhood businesses, becomes a local crisis. Sure, we need federal resources to help, but the response is from local stakeholders--law enforcement, doctors, teachers, faith leaders, business owners and community members.
Just like the small town response decades ago, hurting people in today's towns--whether urban or suburban--need to be surrounded with compassion and a sense of urgency.
Because it takes a village to resolve homelessness.