In case you missed it, we’re reposting School of Theology and Ministry Dean Mark Markuly‘s recent Seattle Times Op Ed. He asks some important questions about what it will take for our city and region to solve the problem of homelessness and speaks to the need to make the crisis more personal for all of us. Something to ponder: what would you do if one of the 32,000 homeless students in WA State was your niece or nephew?
By Mark Markuly, originally published by the Seattle Times on 2/19/15
The 35th annual One Night Count of homeless people in King County last month demonstrated that one of the wealthiest, most literate, gifted and altruistic cities in the country is also hosting one of the most rapidly growing metropolitan homeless populations in the nation. Given the significant number of people, organizations and resources our region dedicates to the issue, the 21 percent increase of homeless people should haunt us.
Why is the problem of homelessness so vexing for Seattle?
In my view, we have not mustered the political will and right combination of contextual responses. Other cities have. According to NationSwell.com, the state of Utah discovered it is $5,670 a year less expensive to provide an apartment and a social worker to a homeless person than it is having society bear the cost of emergency-room visits, law-enforcement interventions and jail.
By putting a roof over the head of the homeless and providing a trained coach or mentor, Utah has reduced homelessness by 74 percent since 2005, and saved money as well.
New Orleans announced last month that it was the first city in the nation to end one demographic of homelessness: veterans. Through a coalition of nonprofits, homeless-service providers, U.S. service members, veterans and federal, state and local agencies, the city has permanently housed 227 homeless veterans. Phoenix has also made significant improvements in veterans’ homelessness.
Many cities have found solutions to homelessness by galvanizing inspiration, citizen involvement, agency coordination and political determination through participation in programs like the 100,000 Homes campaign.
Nashville, Tenn., placed an average of 19 homeless people per month into permanent housing in 2013, but is now housing 47 monthly. Since 2011, Jacksonville, Fla., has lowered its homeless population by one-third, and its chronic homeless population by two-thirds.
In many cities, including Seattle, religious traditions are an essential ingredient in the recipe, often providing space for “cross-sector” collaboration.
In Shreveport, La., an ecumenical group of churches called FaithWorks brought together 32 organizations serving the homeless to discuss a collaboration that is beginning to move the needle on the issue.
In Seattle, the Road to Housing program, a collaborative venture between the city and faith-based organizations, provides safe places to park for those living in automobiles and access to essential services such as bathrooms, meals and clean clothing.
The Downtown Emergency Service Center is a similar state-church partnership, begun in 1979 between the Greater Seattle Council of Churches, the City of Seattle and Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill. Plymouth Church’s Commitment to Social Justice’s Housing Group, and Healing Communities are two other highly effective faith-based responses to homelessness.
So, why are Seattle’s homeless numbers going up while those in other cities are going down?
We’re still trying to figure out the Rubik’s Cube of issues. We certainly lack the housing stock of Utah, continue to struggle with coordinating our service providers (unlike Nashville and Jacksonville), and cannot muster the political will to dramatically impact the issue (as in New Orleans).
Because homelessness is so complicated, with a blinding array of intersecting causes, we also have failed to integrate the right resources from government, industry, nonprofit agencies, private citizens and religious traditions in the correct intensity and chronology.
However, I think our biggest challenge to this problem is something more fundamental: For most of us, homelessness isn’t personal enough.
As part of its interfaith Faith & Family Homelessness Project, the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University conducts workshops in schools and congregations that allow participants to experience a small taste of the challenges that homeless people face every day.
By role-playing scenarios that represent the common setbacks in the lives of very poor people, participants experience the frustration and Catch-22s that suck the motivation, creativity and hope from people on the verge of homelessness. The workshop makes the issue of homelessness more personal, and instills in participants the human values, virtues and resolve needed to go the distance with this stubborn social problem.
Ending homelessness in a nation as wealthy as ours is not impossible, but it is apparently more difficult than the kinds of problems our highly gifted region is conditioned to solving. The One Night Count should frustrate and anger us and it should invite real humility in our past efforts. It should also drive us back to reassessing the nature of the problem and our collaborations to fix it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t convince us to give up on the problem. As a community, we’re better than that.