Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Homelessness and community resilience

I recently visited Boston and was struck by the number of homeless people sleeping in doorways, on park benches or in improvised shelters.  I saw something similar in Portland, OR, when I was there two years ago.  And most of us have read about the “poop patrols” in San Francisco.

My initial take on what I’ve read and seen was that the homeless on the streets are indicators of a city’s weakness and a certain lack of resilience.  But I wasn’t sure (I try to be aware of my own cognitive biases!), so I dug into what is known about homelessness – and unknown.  I still believe homelessness is an indicator of civic weakness, but if I’m right, the indicator is obscured by a rather complicated picture.

Because – let’s face it – getting a handle on homelessness is complicated.  First, we have to recognize that there’s not a single population we can label “the homeless,” but several.  There’s the temporarily homeless who have access to resources but just need some type of temporary shelter until they can get their ducks in a row. This might be an abused spouse who eventually will end up with her parents, or a family that has gone through a foreclosure but still has a stable income and eventually will find a dwelling.  Since even the average American family is unlikely to have $400 immediately available to deal with emergencies, it’s clear that those at the margins are susceptible to being homeless at least once.

Then there’s the long-term homeless who don’t have a stable income – often no income at all – and slim prospects for the future.  These are the ones we so often picture as the homeless – poor, often sick, under influence, shambling from doorway to park bench and back.  The ones we try not to see as we think “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Further complicating the picture is that both the long-term and the short-term homeless may be living on the streets or may make use of a shelter.  For example, a family where the wage-earner has lost his or her job may live for a while in the family minivan, or may go to a shelter.  Depending on the weather, one of the long-term homeless may choose to live on the streets.  And if that isn’t complex enough, some cities have shantytowns made of cardboard boxes and other jetsam.

Further muddying the waters, our ideas about the demographics of the homeless are skewed by the ways we count them.  Our most precise numbers are “point-in-time” (PIT) estimates.  Since 2006, our national statistics on homelessness have been based on a locally-determined PIT taken on a night in late January that included shelters and whoever was seen on the streets, and an annual count based on shelter usage. Most likely the totals are biased low because of the difficulty of counting the homeless on the streets and in the crude shantytowns.  Different locales may also have different approaches to counting which introduces additional uncertainty into the totals.

We have a reasonably consistent picture of who the 0.2% of the US population in shelters are: invariably poor, predominantly men, nearly half African-American, with a history of homelessness, not much beyond middle age or younger (old don’t survive?), with a higher proportion of veterans than in the general population.  There is strong evidence that cities with greater restrictions on buildings (driving costs up) have greater homelessness as well; 20% of the homeless nation-wide live in either Los Angeles or New York.  Two-thirds of the PIT count are in shelters, one-third are on the streets.

The street people especially are a signal of civic weakness.  While some may call it compassion to let them stay on the streets, I see it as throwing in the towel on how to help them.  We know that they are vectors of drugs and crime, and that many of them in severe need of mental health care.  In a crisis, street people are unlikely to know what to do; they are isolated from the community.  Further, depending on their mental state, street people are as likely to impede first responders as to help them.  And in a crisis, their need for scarce resources will likely dwarf their proportion of the population.

There’s no silver bullet for “fixing” homelessness – the problem is too complex, with no enduring cure.  We will always have a transient homeless population.  But a resilient community cares about all of its citizens and finds ways to lift them up when they have fallen.  That doesn’t mean just one program, but interventions targeted to each specific segment of the homeless – programs such as “Rapid Re-housing”  for those who are temporarily with out permanent housing or “Housing First” for those who have greater needs.  While a community should do this out of compassion and caring, there are good practical reasons to do something about homelessness.  Getting people off the streets and into homes means more of them are contibuting to the community financially.  People in homes are less isolated; they are more likely to be reachable through mass communications; more likely to have neighbors they can imitate (at least) in a crisis.

A lack of such programs is a sign of weakness.  Either the will is lacking to take the appropriate actions, or there is a lack of resources.  A resilient community will recognize its duty to all of its citizens.  A resilient community will recognize the value of investing in its citizens – all of them.  Certainly there are myriad problems facing our communities, but allowing homelessness to fester signifies a lack of resilience.