The Hennepin County-City of Minneapolis Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is illustrative of this set of aspectual considerations. As the 2006 Wilder Survey noted, 38% of homeless adults were African-American, 11% were Native American, 8% were of mixed race and 7% were Hispanic-Latino. Nearly half of the population reported having been treated for mental health issues and 47% of the homeless adults reported having been incarcerated at some point in their lives. Close to half reported substance or alcohol abuse disorders. By gender, the number of men was almost double that of women in the State. One in four homeless men had served in the military.
The commission included five African-Americans, two Hispanic-Latinos, one Asian and no Native-American members. A total of five members had experienced homelessness themselves and three openly avowed having experienced justice interaction. Two members indicated that they had been treated for mental health conditions or disorders. One third of the members were women, though arguably this sub-group held a disproportionate level of power within the commission as will be illustrated further. Three commission members openly avowed struggling with a substance and\or alcohol abuse disorder. In short, the commission’s membership didn’t resemble the population served nor did they reflect the hallmark characteristics of those who experienced homelessness.
The Old Gals Network
I came to refer to the core leadership, the nucleus of the effort, as the “old gals network”. As long as I ingratiated myself with that crowd and didn’t bother to take umbrage at their exploitation of people like me, all was good. But when, as the work progressed my differences with their approach to the problem and their searing insistence that we couldn’t possibly do without them, I publicly took them on for what they were doing…my days were numbered. So, who were they and how did they fit within the demographic and systemic portrayal drawn above?
Internally, the directions undertaken by the Minneapolis-Hennepin County 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness were largely determined by membership of the Shelter Providers Action Association (SPAA, a rather unfortunate acronym). There are five Emergency Homeless Shelters within the City of Minneapolis and within the constructs of funding, service provision and advocacy efforts undertaken within the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin county, the core membership of this organization largely determines what will occur. The five shelter directors operated in close association with the HUD, State-level agencies such as MHFA and local advocacy and service provision organizations such as M.E.S.H. (Metro-Wide Engagement on Shelter and Housing), the Bridge for Runaway Youth, Minnesota Assistance Council for Homeless Veterans (MACV) and City and associated public, city and county offices. In composite, there were—and remain—thirty to thirty five people who dominate service delivery, funding streams and advocacy efforts within the homeless services paradigm. Policy-makers and those working in related systems and in academia followed the lead of this core group. Lacking sanction from this core group you had little chance of achieving much of anything.
Ninety percent of this core group consisted of white middle-class women between the ages of 35 and 55. None of them had experienced homelessness, justice interaction, military service, substance abuse or mental illness—in the latter two categories, at least not publicly. While they encouraged someone like me to publicly trot out personal experience in order to illustrate that homelessness could “happen to anyone” more than one member of this core group privately cautioned me against talking about my experiences publicly. They traded positions across offices and organizations within their finite membership, presented each other with awards year after year and were continually congratulating one another on their “sacrifice”, “commitment to the work” and “selfless” advocacy on behalf of the homeless.
“Selflessness and Commitment”, a Lucrative Proposition
I was not alone in some level of wonderment and consternation at the notion of their selflessness and their commitment–not to mention the utter lack of qualifications, experiential or professional–that was the norm among their number. The Director of one of the major shelters held a B.A. in German, the Director of the 10 year plan was a photographer and most of the rest came out of Liberal Arts backgrounds with no professional training of any kind related to work on homelessness. Simply put, these were people who stumbled into jobs working at one of the shelters and found that such occupation was quite lucrative. The Director with a background in German Language, for example, pulled down $89,000 a year for his position at an Emergency Shelter. The Director of Hearth Connection earned $120,000 per annum for managing five staff and the Director of the Ten Year Plan earned well over $100,000 in 2006. In short, this group of very close associates acted in close cooperation and they guarded their turf zealously. It’s not difficult to understand why. Salaries aside, the ancillary perks were considerable. Hell, if you paid me 120,000 a year to sit around large tables in posh surroundings to discuss problems faced by people with whom I had nothing in common I would be committed, too.
To illustrate the close associations within that finite pool of service providers and advocates it is worthwhile to note that in 2016 one of the mainstays is now on the St. Louis Park City Council, another protégé of Commissioner Gail Dorfman (the lead orchestrator of “the work” in Hennepin County) is now Mayor of Minneapolis while Dorfman herself now presides over St. Stephens Shelter. Other players in “the work” during the period 2003-2007 have gone on to equally lucrative and powerful positions in city, county and state offices or in the private sector. This is a close-knit community engaged in self-promotion and unabashed self-congratulation over the course of decades. Where else can you earn six figure salaries while failing, demonstrably, over the course of decades?
That the person who had launched the 2006 Minneapolis-Hennepin County Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness should offer the same general observation in 2016 following such dismal results is hardly surprising. For fifty years affordable housing and homeless advocates have attributed the problem to a lack of affordable housing: The lack of affordable housing, however, is only part of the problem but we’ve erected a vast service-delivery and advocacy infrastructure dependent upon this cornerstone and to challenge it remains the greatest of heresies. If you were to ask a black male justice-involved combat veteran with mental health issues in the City of Minneapolis what were the main problems he faced in the realm of homelessness the first words out of his mouth would not be, “the lack of affordable housing”.
(To be continued)