Opinion Columns & Blogs

We are failing on homelessness ... now what?

Olympians not only love our vision for the future, but we love the process we believe should achieve it, whether rooted in reality or not. For a problem with no one solution, like homelessness, we first need to stop arguing over the how and agree on the what: No one should be sleeping on the streets at night.

The fear of failure can be a powerful motivator to maintain the status quo. Taking a risk and trying something new can be scary. But what may be even worse is knowing you are failing and not being willing to change. When it comes to homelessness in our community, I believe we can agree that right now, we are failing. And while trying something, or more specifically, spending money on something new, can be scary — when you accept that what you are doing today isn’t working — it becomes easier to try something new.

We should start with this premise: No community has solved the challenge of homelessness. Even Utah, which many point to as a shining example of a place where homelessness has been solved, is struggling. It has done very well at serving a group of individuals considered to be chronically homeless, but not its entire homeless population. What is important to understand is that each community is unique, and what may work in one area may not be as effective in another.

A good friend has worked in government policy in the United States and studied poverty and violence in the Philippines as well. He shared a compelling insight with me: A major difference in how the two cultures address problems is in the planning process. In the West, we think we can plan our way out of any problem. In the East, leaders are willing to take action, try things, learn from them and adapt — without a concrete plan. This also comes from a reality that leaders in impoverished areas have no retreat from the prominence of poverty when they go home at night. For our city leaders, it is too easy to attend a meeting on a Tuesday night, retreat to their homes and never have to deal with the realities on our streets face-to-face.

For a challenge as dynamic as homelessness, we need to take a different approach. Take for example what has happened in just the past several months. Between August and October, the number of tents in downtown Olympia has multiplied 10 times to reach over 300. If we try to develop a strategic plan in six months on homelessness, we are almost guaranteed to have a completely different situation by the time we begin to implement it. The city needs to take action today that addresses the current situation, learn from those actions and adapt when conditions change, as they will.

The city has called a state of emergency on homelessness. And with this designation, we as a community should expect the council to address it as such. I would pose this question: If your house was on fire, would you sit down and develop a plan to ensure the least amount of water damage from the fire department’s hoses before calling 911 or would you dial the number immediately and grab your garden house? In an emergency, the only certainty is damage.

As a community we need to continue to apply pressure on our elected officials to address this problem, and we need to support them when they take meaningful action on the issue, even when it isn’t exactly what we want to see done. Give the action some time, evaluate its success and adapt. Again, no community has completely solved this problem so to say that our homegrown solution is the silver bullet to end homelessness and that no other solution is acceptable just thwarts progress.

We need to agree that it is going to take some sacrifice from everyone in our community to have an impact. We need to stop planning, stop saying our way is the only way and agree that we need to try new approaches. If we fail to change our approach, we will only see the constant failure that is our inability to address this crisis.

Max Brown is a former Olympia Planning Commission Chair, Lean Fellow at Results Washington, and a member of The Olympian’s 2018 Board of Contributors. He can be reached at brownmh74@gmail.com.