Homelessness is a wickedly complex problem. There is no one cause, and no one face of the homeless. The growing numbers of homeless reflect structural issues in our economy as well as problems on our streets.
“Streets issues” are a subset of broader homelessness issues. Addressing streets issues requires distinguishing those who are “in” trouble and need assistance, from those who “are” trouble, dealing drugs, preying on the vulnerable, including homeless and mentally ill people, and exhibiting criminal and antisocial behavior. The line between the two is not always clear and bright. Different circumstances require different intervention strategies. However, criminal and antisocial behavior saps the reservoir of good will necessary for the community to provide services and help those in need.
At its core, homelessness is an economic condition where individuals or families are unable to afford shelter. The causes vary, and the laws of marginal economics apply. Think of the economy as a water line. As waters rise, more individuals and families are under water. As waters recede, more people are above water.
The cost of housing (prices and rents) is rapidly rising in the Puget Sound region and elsewhere in the nation. Incomes are not keeping pace, forcing more people to pay a higher percentage of their income for shelter. Paying more for shelter means less available income for other needs such as food and health care, making families more vulnerable. People at the bottom of the economy are forced out of the market. They can no longer afford housing and become homeless. They double up with relatives or friends, live in shelters, cars or on the streets.
The demand side of the housing market is more complex and nuanced. The U.S. economy is recovering, though the recovery is not evenly distributed across all segments and the middle class is shrinking. Those at the bottom of the economic ladder are falling off because of this squeeze. Available jobs for low skilled workers are shrinking relative to the pool of such workers. More entry level jobs require technical literacy outside the reach of many in the labor pool. Those with limited skills are now on the bubble: unemployed, or not employable at a livable wage sufficient to acquire shelter.
There are a myriad of social issues contributing to homelessness and streets issues. Many of them overlap. Mental health funding and treatment has been neglected for years with predictable consequences on our streets. Substance abuse has been a chronic street issue, but recently it has taken on a very different and dangerous profile with the abuse of prescription drugs and opiates and the increasing availability of cheap heroin and meth. Deaths from drug overdoses now reportedly exceed gun or auto fatalities in the United States. Veterans, many of whom suffer from mental health trauma, have not received adequate recognition of their conditions, let alone adequate treatment. Many people who drop out of school are marginally literate or illiterate and are not prepared to function in today’s economy, turning instead to the street. Homeless youth are at a significant disadvantage in acquiring the skills necessary to compete in today’s economy. Individuals and families that have suffered serious or catastrophic health issues, or other trauma, may have lost their jobs and housing.
Not all who panhandle are homeless and not all homeless are panhandling. Unfortunately, panhandlers are the most common image associated with homelessness. In reality, the homeless have many faces with different circumstances behind each. Often homeless people do not wish to be identified, are too young to fully understand or manage their circumstances, or are preoccupied with improving their situations. Focusing our attention on panhandling distracts our attention from the more challenging housing and homelessness issues on our streets and in our community.
Those who are homeless on the streets need help and assistance. Providing appropriate help and intervention earlier — upstream — before people begin an economic slide, is the most effective way to address these needs. Interventions on the streets can be effective and are preferable to applying law enforcement tools to social problems. We know that law enforcement is an expensive and ineffective means to address many streets issues not clearly criminal in nature. New strategies are being employed, including barrier-free housing for the most vulnerable and those who present the greatest demand on public health and safety services. Also, embedding social workers with police has helped develop appropriate intervention strategies and alternatives to a criminal response.
Those committing serious crimes, including dealing drugs, require a different intervention. They prey upon the vulnerable and marginalized, including homeless individuals, citizens and businesses. Antisocial and criminal behaviors such as theft, dealing drugs, setting fire to dumpsters and defecating in doorways cannot be ignored or tolerated. Individuals that commit such acts may also need help. However, addressing homelessness and streets issues will require the good will of the entire community. Such good will is tested and eroded when the streets are abandoned to criminal and anti-social behaviors.
Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson took the correct action creating the Streets Initiative. He and the City Council took the correct actions in recommending a balanced approach to address homelessness and streets issues, including funding for barrier-free housing, embedded social service providers with police and first responders, and increasing enforcement tools.
These are modest steps in a long journey, but they are balanced steps in the right direction.
Paul Roberts is a member of the Everett City Council, and president of the Association of Washington Cities; his views are his own.