We should do all we can, but homelessness is a bigger problem than Olympia can solve

The city of Olympia has launched a planning and public engagement process to craft a long-term plan for dealing with growing homelessness. There will be meetings galore, with flip charts, yellow sticky notes, and Power Point presentations. The world-weary among us may wonder if more meetings – however well-organized and well-intended – can make a difference.

But in spite of our own acute case of meeting fatigue, we applaud the city’s efforts to engage citizens in a civic conversation on this topic. And we’re glad to see that the city has dramatically improved the quality of information about homelessness on its website.

Our big-picture concern is that this effort will create unrealistic expectations about what even the very best municipal government can accomplish when confronted by a problem with deep roots in our dysfunctional economy, and in the midst of a protracted shortage of affordable housing.

There’s another concern, too: As long as we are only talking about how to “respond” to homelessness, we are caught in a trap, because our society is churning out more homeless people faster than we can provide even the most elemental humanitarian responses to their suffering. Somehow, we need to tackle the challenge of how to prevent homelessness.

The big picture of prevention would start with a lot more housing and a lot less poverty. That would require a reversal of decades of cuts to federal housing programs, and a national shift toward a dramatic reduction in income inequality, starting with a higher minimum wage and significant investments in free, effective job training and safety net programs.

And beyond that, there’s a long list of very specific unmet needs that target inter-generational poverty. For example, we need:

  • universal early childhood education, starting with visiting nurses who help new parents bond with their babies and understand what babies and toddlers need to thrive;
  • a child welfare system that is fully funded, with social workers who are well paid and not overworked to the point of burnout;

  • public schools where adult relationships with students are based on deep caring, cultural competence, respect, and high expectations;

  • easy-to-access mental health services for people of every age, without stigma;

  • addiction treatment on demand, and robust harm reduction programs for people who aren’t ready for treatment;

  • criminal justice reforms that focus on rehabilitation, and expand rather than foreclose future employment opportunities;

  • an end to racism, gender discrimination, and homophobia;

  • a spiritual renewal based not on dogma, but on the simple, universal value of loving our neighbors – all of them – not just in theory but in practice.

Achieving these goals would result in a better educated, healthier and more prosperous society. And that’s the only kind of 21st century society in which homelessness will not be a chronic problem.

To create that society, we need to do more than sit at the bottom of a cliff talking about how to help the ever-growing number of our neighbors who have fallen off. And we need to have realistic expectations about how much of this problem can be solved at the local, regional, or even state level. The scale of growing homelessness – which is the most extreme result of the hopelessness that poverty engenders – requires a national response from a functional, purposeful federal government that makes reducing poverty a top priority.

The success of the city’s planning effort depends on local citizens understanding this larger context. Without that understanding, even the best local efforts are in danger of being deemed failures because they alone cannot solve the problem of homelessness.

Our local measures do make a difference. Even if the city and its local partners cannot solve the problem of homelessness, our community can (and already do) make an immense difference in the lives of those who are helped to find housing and reclaim their lives. And even those who remain homeless benefit from the services, meals, and shelter provided by the city, and by our local network of nonprofits, faith communities, and big-hearted volunteers.

So even though we sigh about more meetings with flip charts and Power Points, we encourage citizens to attend them, and to learn more, speak up more, and become whatever small part of a solution each of us can be.

On April 18, the city has invited people who live and/or work downtown to a meeting from 9 to 11 a.m. in the Columbia Room of the state Capitol. And the general public is invited to weigh in at a meeting from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 20 at Olympia High School, and another from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. May 4 at Capital High School.

Our best hope is that these meetings will help us all examine both what needs to be done at the bottom of the cliff, and how we can build better fences at the top of it.