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Hiding the homeless

The most damaging aspect of The Road Home 10-year plan is that it makes the homeless easy to dismiss.

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Tacoma, meet Dave Jewett.

When he’s not riled up about getting ignored by doctors, Dave is as open, honest and friendly a person as you’re likely to meet. Dave likes to watch movies with his friends on Saturday nights and doesn’t mind that they sometimes call him “Popeye.” Dave’s favorite things list is short — smoking his pipe, spending time with his friends, and writing about things that matter to him. Dave says he doesn’t see as well as he used to, and his knees don’t work as well as they should.

Dave admits he doesn’t care whether or not downtown Tacoma gets another cupcake shop or what kind of faux patina is put on the railings in the city’s latest condo development. He does wish he could find a better stem for his pipe. And he would like to get his hands on a better set of crutches, which he needs to walk more than a few yards because of advancing age, past injuries and many knee surgeries.

“I’ve had a lot of stuff in my knee that isn’t my knee,” he says.

Dave is one of several hundred people living in Tacoma who doesn’t have a permanent place to live. In fairness, it is important to note that Dave lives on public assistance, has an apartment that is provided for him by local service agencies, and has been learning to cook and store his own meals with the help of a local volunteer.

But Dave is among the lucky few.

On any given day, there are between 200 and 500 people living on the streets in Pierce County, depending on who you ask. This week, local officials will look over the latest count of people living in the county without homes. The count arrives near the halfway mark of a 10-year program titled The Road Home, which local officials promised in 2004 would put half of the county’s chronically homeless population in some form of permanent shelter.

For the county, things aren’t working out as well as everyone had hoped.

The 2008 homeless count registered just over 1,700 homeless people in Pierce County, including 500 living in transitional housing. That’s a disappointing increase of nine percent, says Gary Aden, administrative program manager for the county’s housing program. The number of chronically homeless has increased by 27 percent since 2007, according to the latest count. Some of the increase can be attributed to more aggressive counting efforts, says Aden. Statisticians would remind you that even aggressive homeless counts are generally conservative, however, because the homeless are a mobile group, and not all are willing to be counted.

“Chronic homelessness has increased,” says Aden, “and it’s increased significantly. We have had a hard time handling housing for people who have issues with drug and alcohol abuse. We just haven’t found a way as a community to come up with an option for these people.”

Before the finger-pointing ensues, it is important to note that the issue of homelessness is staggering in complexity and magnitude. Local officials are often at the mercy of federal and state funding agencies that have consistently cut assistance dollars several years running. The Bush administration’s 2008 budget dramatically cut federal housing and assistance funds — a consistent trend since the “compassionate conservative” took office in 2000. The recently announced 2009 budget suggests further slashing of funds for housing programs by more than $1 billion, in total. Meanwhile, those higher officials facing funding cuts have forced local ones to implement a 10-year plan such as The Road Home to get their hands on what’s left.

“We are at the mercy of federal policy changes,” says Aden. “Our communities have responded to state and federal calls. But the mandates are unfunded. We have about two or three dollars for every 10 we need.”

Those kinds of shortages are nothing new, he adds. Local organizations are dealing with 30 years of housing cutbacks and a growing gap between the cost of housing and people’s ability to pay for it. As it stands, Pierce County could use about 30,000 units to address its affordable housing shortage, which a recent Pierce County commission report describes as approaching crisis proportions.

“The services that are offered for people in this situation are always so overwhelmed. I don’t know of any one agency that doesn’t have a wait list,” says Aden. “Because we are limited, the kind of work we do is incremental, and it’s not going to get everyone’s attention. Usually, when you’re faced with those kinds of odds, it’s going to appear that no one is doing anything.”

The dark side of The Road Home

Tacoma city officials seek to find ways to avoid claims that homeless programs aren’t effective — they make the most visibly homeless disappear. Efforts in Tacoma to get people off the streets have been more aggressive than any other city in the state, says Tim Harris, executive director of the Seattle-based advocacy organization and newspaper Real Change.

“Tacoma is on the cutting edge,” Harris says, emphasizing that his statement is not a compliment.

Laws have been passed, for example that outlaw sleeping anywhere by a home or shelter and aggressively limit panhandling — two cornerstones of any homeless person’s survival strategy. In 2006, Tacoma officials enacted an official Encampment Elimination Program and subsequently razed more than a dozen encampments where homeless people lived and slept. In exchange for destroying their temporary dwellings, and in many cases their belongings, city officials reached out to offer free shelter to qualified individuals living in camps.

Sound like a good deal? Not exactly.

The Housing First aspect of the Encampment Project was originally allocated more than $1 million to house as many as 100 people. City officials seem to have missed figures that put the populations of Tacoma’s homeless camps at as many as 300 people — figures that were included in the city’s own reports on the matter. The discrepancy between what is promised and what is taken away from homeless people by such laws is what Harris calls the “dark side of the Road Home.”

“The thing that I keep struggling to get my head around is how distant appearances and reality are when it comes to city policy around homelessness,” says Harris. “Everyone has embraced the rhetoric around ending homelessness, but I see very little of it in terms of what is coming to prevail. What this really comes down to is reducing visible homelessness. ”

Unfortunately, the city’s track record doesn’t offer much to dispute Harris’ claim. Tacoma’s Housing First model relies on the private housing market to provide homes for displaced residents of Tacoma’s homeless camps, according to a recent update study conducted by a small team at the University of Puget Sound. Private landlords review criminal records and applications and have veto power if something doesn’t suit their fancy. The UPS report indicates that an alarming number of people taken into the Housing First program have been evicted. So far, Aden estimates about 60 people of the 100 promised have been housed, and not all of them remain. City officials report that of the 70 people who applied in 2006, 56 were admitted into the program. Getting people into the Housing First units was tough because few met the criteria — they had to live in a camp, have no criminal record, and couldn’t use drugs while sheltered under the program. Evictions have indeed plagued the program, with one agency — Greater Lakes Mental Health — nearly pulling out because strict criteria made it difficult to keep anyone housed. Tacoma Rescue Mission withdrew from the program in 2007, saying the program “wasn’t a good fit.”

While conversations about the success of the Housing First program swirl, many forget to ask a crucial question: Where did the other 200 people living in camps go? Tacoma Police contend that only a few have been arrested. Beyond that, social service agencies contend they’ve moved on to other cities where it’s not illegal to sleep in the woods or under bridges. Even the people being housed have ended up elsewhere — nearly all of Tacoma’s Housing First units are in Lakewood.

Frankly, that’s the idea, says Harris — to remove the homeless from public view.

“I don’t think people understand what the 10-year plan is all about,” he says. “Why would the (federal) administration that seems to be (the) most hostile to poor people in 70 years take on this task of solving homelessness? The answer is that it’s not really about solving the issue. Truth is, the chronic homeless make up a very small percentage of the overall population. This is really about visible homelessness. You have this federally backed strategy that is essentially a template for a very sophisticated propaganda model. It’s a way of reframing homelessness to focus on the most visible and dysfunctional and most easy to blame.”

That is one of the most damaging aspects of the 10-year plan, says Harris — it makes the homeless easy to dismiss. Once you stigmatize a population, “it’s pretty easy to do whatever you want to them.”

City officials, meanwhile, contend they are simply responding to voter demands, and they spend a great deal of time emphasizing how much cleaner everything looks. That, says Harris, is what local officials are really after — clearing the way for people who pay more taxes and spend more money.

Aden is more forgiving of Tacoma officials, saying that responding to voter mandates is what public officials are supposed to do.

“I think there are at least two sides to every story,” he says. “In the case of the laws that have been created, that’s in response to what the citizens in those communities are saying they want. I think that when you are dealing with a challenging population that hasn’t been housed in years, there are so many places to point fingers.”

Harris is more comfortable pointing fingers and suggests one target in particular to consider.

“City officials know that a lot of growth is being driven by people who are moving from the suburbs and want to bring their suburban comfort zones with them,” he says. “Even more than stigmatizing the broader homeless population, this is about eliminating the homelessness that makes people uncomfortable. This sort of thing wouldn’t happen as easily if so many people didn’t support it.”

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