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“You call this progress, because you have motor cars and telephones and flying machines and a thousand potions to make you smell better? And people sleeping on the streets?” 

 ― Howard ZinnMarx in Soho: A Play on History

A Professional Advocacy Caste and Efforts to End Homelessness

Seventy ‘community leaders’ gathered at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota half-way through 2006 to churn out a ten-year plan to end homelessness in Hennepin County.  According to the Wilder Foundation, there were between 9,200 and 9,300 homeless people in the State of Minnesota that year.  According to the same source in 2015 there were an estimated 9,313 homeless people. In an article which appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on February 28, 2016 the Director of the ten-year plan at the outset remarked, “ending homelessness boils down to making housing affordable and providing services so people can live independently.“. For decades, the persistence of widespread homelessness has been primarily attributed to a lack of affordable housing: advocacy efforts and resources have been focused accordingly.

With the advent of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society in the mid-1960s a wide range of Federal Agencies were created and others were restructured, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). On August 10, 1965 The Housing and Urban Development Act created several major expansions and the following month HUD was elevated to a cabinet-level agency. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act sought to eradicate discriminatory housing practices and in 1987 the agency added a fifth core mission, Between the creation of HUD as a cabinet-level agency and the addition of homelessness as one of its core missions, a wide range of other federal legislation  was enacted, including; the Emergency Home Finance Act (1970); The Rehabilitation Act (1973); Housing and Community Redevelopment Act (1974) and its amended version (1977); The Housing and Recovery Act (1983); and perhaps most importantly, the McKinney-Vento Act (1987).

In short, a plethora of Federal and parallel State-level legislation passed in to law targeting affordable housing and the phenomenon of homelessness. Attendant upon the enactment of this slate of legislation arose a professional advocacy caste arose which became self-perpetuating its fiscal requirements, over time, became the paramount consideration in all subsequent endeavors—so did the emphases its membership chose to select within attacks upon the problem. Said emphases continually failed to understand the problem of homelessness within broader social contexts. While nearly half of those who experienced homelessness struggled with the collateral consequences of justice interaction, the social barriers erected by racial discrimination and  inadequate wages, the leadership involved in policy, at all levels, chose to focus on the lack of affordable housing or Federal block-grant allocations for supportive vs. transitional housing.

Homelessness in America

Homelessness in America

The nature and function of this professional advocacy caste and the requirements its continued existence demand have not been well-considered. First and foremost, this professional caste of advocates has become increasingly separated from the populations they serve. Lacking in shared experience and wholly disconnected from the communities they serve they have failed, repeatedly, to attack the core problems arising out of the fluidity of a wide range of social problems. For example, while mass incarceration impacted communities across the nation during the 1980s and 1990s, becoming one of the primary feeder systems for the problem of homelessness, the national leadership charged with tackling the problem undertook little in terms of substantive advocacy. Another example would be the mortgage foreclosure crisis and the practice of predatory lending, particularly within communities of color—the crisis fell upon tens of millions, thrusting hundreds of thousands into the status of being marginally housed or homeless before the national advocacy community lurched into action.

Personal Disconnection from the Communities Served

Personal disconnection from the communities served and the problems they experience has ensured that, despite colossal fiscal outlays and a slate of federal and state legislation, the problem of homelessness is worse now than in 1968. Let’s consider the leadership of some of the paramount advocacy organizations from the standpoint of demographics, beginning with the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH). According to the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH), single men comprised 51% of the homeless population, single women, 17%. Families with children comprise 33%. In terms of race, the statistics are as follows; 49% African-American, 35% Caucasian, 13% Hispanic, 2% Native American and 1% Asian. In terms of Veterans Status, 40% of Homeless men are veterans. Approximately 16% are diagnosed with a Severe and Persistent Mental Illness and circa 30% suffer from an addictive disorder. Curiously absent from the fact sheet in question, is reporting around the topic of justice involvement—multiple sources assign the percentage of the homeless who experience justice interaction at nearly half. The largest sections of the fact sheet cited are those dealing with Domestic Violence and Families, though within context these are problems impacting a minority within the broader population of homelessness.

So, based on those statistical considerations—and omissions—it is of some interest to question the intersectionality between those served and those providing advocacy services. If a majority of those who experience homelessness are single, black men who are likely to have served in the military, experienced justice interaction and also suffer from mental health or substance abuse issues should that be somewhat reflected at the apex of the advocacy continuum? With that consideration in mind, let’s look at the leadership of both the NAEH and the NCH: The NAEH’s leadership is composed of nineteen members. Sixteen are women, one of whom is African-American (and her charge is office operations, not policy). There are three men, one of whom is African-American. None of the leadership ever served in the military, has experienced justice interaction, struggled with a substance abuse or mental health-related issue and none has personally experienced the problem of homelessness, at least openly.  The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) lists three leadership positions; the director is a white male and two women, one white, one Asian-American. Other major advocacy organizations include the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) lists nine national staff members; seven women, two men. By race, three are from communities of color—two of those Asian-American. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) is comprised of six leadership positions, two held by men, four by women—none of whom, at least publicly, acknowledges having experienced homelessness, though all served in the military.[5] The Corporation for Supportive Housing’s leadership team is comprised of a membership of five; four women, one man—all white.

The Disconnection in the State of Minnesota: Poverty Pimping

This jarring separation between populations served and those advocating on their behalf might be well illustrated in the State of Minnesota during the course of its ten year plan to end homelessness between the years 2006-2016. Dispassionate and severely disconnected from the problems they attempt to address, their over-arching interest is organizational perpetuation and not a commitment to fight where fighting needs to occur. The end result is, literally, sixty years of attempts to address widespread homelessness in the United States which have cost trillions of dollars and the problem is perhaps now worse than it ever was.

The State of Minnesota, during the course of its ten year plan to end homelessness (2006-2016), well illustrates what happens when colossal resources are vested in the hands of a small group of people with virtually no interconnection between their own interests and experience and those of the people they ostensibly serve.

From 1998 to 2008 I was very much a player in the work around homelessness in the State of Minnesota, in general, and particularly within efforts that took place in the Metropolitan region—the seven counties comprising the Twin Cities and adjoining suburbs. I served on the Boards of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV), led the Decriminalization of Homelessness Task Force, served on HUD’s Continuum-of-Care (CoC) over the course of years, the Hennepin County Community Advisory Board on Homelessness (CABoH) and as the Lobbyist and Advocacy Coordinator for the Council on Crime and Justice. I was very much an integral part of work on the problem of homelessness during that period of time. However, my areas of focus were very different from those in the mainstream of work around homelessness during that time-frame. In 2007 I staged a very public insurrection against what I viewed as the exploitative practices of the leadership involved in the business of ending homelessness—emphasis on the word “business”.

In order to understand the business of serving the homeless and the battle to end homelessness in the State of Minnesota and the seven county metropolitan area comprised of the Twin Cities it is of great importance to understand who the people are who comprised (and comprise) those efforts.

(To be continued)