In a recent article from Public Record Media (PRM) entitled, “Looking back at the ten year effort to end homelessness in Hennepin County” author Mike Kaszuba provided a glance at the City-County effort as it unfolded during the time-frame, 2006-2016. The article provides some useful information but also misses the mark in terms of contextualization. PRM gathered over 5,000 e-mails and documents through open records requests in an attempt to shed some light on the abysmal performance of the City-County’s ten year plan then relied upon the mainstream advocates responsible for comment and analysis.
Therein’s the rub and so it has remained for decades. Now’s a good time to consider whether or not entrusting the problem to the same group of people is a good idea. A well-known Minnesota advocate who has been around for decades, referred to this group of people and the debacle of the 10 Year Plan in very apt terms. He called the effort and its leadership a “conspiracy of dunces”. Works for me.
Demographics and Representation: Those at the Table and Those Missing
As has reverberated throughout a variety of topical advocacy discussions across multiple issue areas in the United States many have repeated such refrains as, “nothing about us, without us”. The underpinnings behind such arguments include the following central points or beliefs;
- That an experiential component within advocacy efforts and the delivery of services is imperative for it lends a level of understanding that cannot be acquired through academic or professional avenues. Furthermore, that those who have lived a problem will understand it in ways that those who haven’t simply cannot and that understanding will enhance effectiveness.
- That from an ethical and moral standpoint those who have experienced a problem or issue such as homelessness should rise to the apex of address in advocacy efforts and within service-delivery systems. Not only will that serve to curb exploitation by those driven solely by financial or professional interest in the issue but it also provides a visible, public demonstration that those who have suffered or lived the problem can rise and speak for themselves. This element should be viewed as a critical imperative to help detract from stereotypical characterizations of the homeless.
- The contention that through true incorporation of marginalized populations within leadership roles and infrastructures helps dismantle exclusionary practices. Here, such considerations as institutionalized racism, stigmatization of those with mental health issues or physical disabilities or illnesses and justice interaction are of high import when set against the virtual uniformity of our statistical understanding of homeless populations. If 39% of the homeless people in Minnesota are African-American and not a single Black person serves in a leadership role at the State or major metropolitan level it not only smacks of institutionalized racism but sends a very exclusionary message and drives a wedge between those served and those who do the “serving”.
According to the Wilder Foundation’s report, “Homelessness in Minnesota: Findings from the 2015 Minnesota Homeless Study”, the demographics of homelessness in the State, there were 9,315 homeless people in the State on October 22, 2015 according to the Point-in-Time (P.I.T.) survey conducted on that date. The demographics of those surveyed include the following;
- African-Americans: 5% of Minnesota’s general population, 39% of the homeless. In the Twin Cities Metropolitan area African-Americans comprise 50% of homeless.
- Native-Americans: Less than 1% of the State’s population, 8% of the homeless. In Greater Minnesota 16% of the homeless are Native while it is 4% in the Metro.
- Hispanic-Latino: Comprise 4% of the State population yet represent 7% of those who are homeless in the State–this percentage is the same in the Metro.
- Asian-Americans: 4% of the State’s population, 2% of State-wide homeless, 3% in the Metro.
- Mixed or Other Race: Comprise 1% of State population, 4% of the homeless.
Thus, in terms of the demographics of race, people of color comprised 60% of the homeless in Greater Minnesota and 66% of the homeless in the Twin Cities, Greater Metropolitan region.
In terms of gender, according to a 2015 report from SAMHSA, the homeless population was approximately 51% single men and 24% single women. Another 23% are families, often single mothers and their children. Men have long disproportionately experienced homelessness at far higher rates than women, due to a variety of reasons including veterans status, differences in inability to access health care, justice involvement and higher incidences of substance and alcohol abuse. Among those defined as ‘chronically homeless”, by HUD definition, the rates of homelessness among men are even more disproportionate–in some studies and surveys, chronically homeless men constitute as high as 80% of the total.
By age, according to Wilder, 9% of the total number of homeless in Minnesota were 55 or older–sharp increases in this population have been noted over the last 10 years. 39% of the total are between age 24 and 54. 35% of the total are children under the age of 17 who are with their parents while unaccompanied youth ages 24 and younger represent 16% of the total count. More than three quarters of the homeless adults in the State possess a High School Diploma while 37% report having at least some College.
There has been criticism, in some quarters, of the homeless population along the lines of areas of origin–people noting that disproportionate numbers of the homeless are people who are not from Minnesota. According to the same Wilder study from 2015, “77% of homeless adults have lived in Minnesota for three years or longer, and an
additional 7% lived here at some point previously” (p. 18). Over 48%, nearly half, had lived in Minnesota for 20 years or longer.
Many people experiencing long-term homelessness (64%) reported serious mental health issues. Over half (53%) reported a chronic physical health condition or illness and 25% of long-term homeless report a serious substance abuse disorder that has been diagnosed. 63% of homeless men and 30% of homeless women reported prior incarceration at some point in their lives while 19% had been incarcerated in the previous two years.(p.28).
Demographics Reflected in Service Delivery and Advocacy Continuum?
Using the data as extracted from the Wilder Foundation’s 2015 survey as presented above, what would a “typical” homeless person look like and how might their life experience, in composite, be depicted or portrayed? Male over the age of 24 with an High School education or higher who has been incarcerated at some point in his life and who is also likely to have been diagnosed with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. By race, he would be more likely to be Black than any other race.
So, with that composite in mind, are these demographic considerations reflected within the leadership of advocacy and service-delivery systems in Minneapolis and Hennepin County? Let’s put this another way, if you were to take all of those employed by emergency shelters and Homeless service-delivery organizations, leading consultants, those in leadership in the big advocacy organizations, local offices of Federal and State agencies how would representation look?
Of the five large emergency shelters in Minneapolis, all five Executive Directors are white women over the age of 40. None of them, at least in terms of public disclosure have ever experienced homelessness, nor have they publicly disclosed prior incarceration, diagnosed mental health or substance abuse disorders and none of them served in the military (8% of total homeless). The Hennepin County-City of Minneapolis has had three directors, all white, two male, one female. In the faith-based continuum of service-delivery organizations, aside from the Emergency shelters aforementioned, all directors are white, predominantly females over 40–again, sharing none of the characteristic experiences delineating the “face” of homelessness.
Thus, while our composite or “typical” homeless person in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, as noted, might be a black guy over 24 with the aforementioned sets of life experiences characterizing those living the issue, the overwhelming majority of paid homeless advocates and service providers are white women over the age of 40 who have no publicly disclosed life experience(s) characteristic of the manifestation of homelessness.
For your reference, and with this demographic composite of the “face” of homelessness in mind, here are the “faces” of those who are well-paid to serve and speak on their behalf;
St. Stephens Human Services and Shelter (no photos on their site, but leadership is as noted above).
This selection represents a sampling of organizations dealing with the issue of homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. The leadership of the Office to End Homelessness, those working in Federal agencies in the City and Hennepin County and all of the major non-profit organizations are run and dominated by people who have absolutely nothing in common with the population for whom they have abrogated the authority to speak. Are they bad people? No, invariably they are very nice people. Yet they are nice people who operate as a very exclusive, well-paid and insular club whose primary impetus is not to serve the homeless or undertake effective actions and efforts that would shift the balance in quantifiable terms. The primary focus is funding and self-promotion. Additionally, they simply do not understand how to organize well and that reality is demonstrated again and again over the course of decades. A group of 30-35 people run the show on homelessness in Minneapolis and they have been doing so for 20 years and more.
The thinly-veiled inference that no qualified black men, formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated people in recovery who have experienced the issue of homelessness first-hand could be found over the course of twenty years is ludicrous. One of the most fundamental of problems in the mess of homelessness in Minneapolis and Hennepin County is that those running the show cannot speak to the problem from an experiential podium of authority. You cannot acquire the sort of passion and commitment required through any other means–you have to live it. The refrain needs to be, “Nothing about us, without us!”
One refrain, repeated endlessly by homeless advocates in the region, is, “I could earn a lot more in the corporate sector or in business”. The inference being that their work in homelessness derives of compassion–a laughably false and purportedly self-effacing proclamation that simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The director of one of the major homeless shelters in Minneapolis earned 89K per year. He held a B.A. in German. Now I have no idea what sort of quasi-reality one has to live in to engage in the act of self-delusion which believes you can earn 89K a year with a B.A. in German in the corporate sector, especially when your German sucks. The State Director to End Homelessness holds a B.A. in Photography.
This same insular, self-congratulatory and highly defensive coterie of advocates and providers brooks no challenge and abides no dissent. In addition, their modus operandi has never been to partner with community organizations in any true sense of the word. Over and over again, I watched how they operate. They exploit, engage in co-option of the efforts of others and then give each other awards and promotions. Seriously, this is how they roll.
How does this pan out over time? Well, as Mike Kaszuba and PRM point out, you don’t fix much of anything, really. You spend exorbitant amounts of money over the course of decades then wring your hands in dismay when you fail to achieve results, like Director Mikkel Beckman. No, Mikkel, you are not doing the same thing as advocates in Utah and in an upcoming piece we will highlight the “why” of this statement.
What happens when the same 30-35 people run the show for 20 years? The bureaucracies and organizations in which they work expand, for one thing. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, in its preamble and goals, highlighted a number of important targets, among them;
- The importance of data
- That the number of emergency shelter beds would be vastly reduced
- That the numbers of homeless would be substantially reduced
- The importance of working in effective partnerships.
The PRM article hits the mark roundly when noting that County and City Staff failed to collect and disseminate data effectively—to the point where they couldn’t even do mandatory reporting on federal programs. The astounding assertion that, somehow, that lack of data was someone else’s responsibility is simply unacceptable. Shelter beds have not been reduced by even one bed and, in fact, have expanded. Community partnerships? Nah.
In the wake of what can only be deemed a colossal failure, those responsible do what? Well, one tactic is to throw a bunch of crap up against the wall and hope it sticks: You blame the 2011 tornado in Minneapolis, for example–even though there’s absolutely no data whatsoever to substantiate the assertion that it contributed to longer-term homelessness in Minneapolis. You whine about the lack of funding, in spite of the fact that the effort actually received more funding than had been projected in 2006 at inception of the plan. You rail on and on about the foreclosure crisis while not demonstrating direct correlations with homelessness. In short, the failure to achieve is not their fault, it’s everyone else’s, but not theirs.
What’s the solution? Well, there are many things that could be done, but the first step toward addressing this problem has to be getting rid of the aforementioned 30-35 people. They have had more than two decades to make a dent. They had ten years and tens of millions of dollars, 2006-2016–and they failed miserably. Quit asking them for their analyses and their opinions. Their constant assertions that they earn far more in the corporate sector….Fine!! Please, go for it! Get out of the way at last. If you really wanted to end or seriously curb the numbers of homelessness in Hennepin County the first thing you might do is clear a path for those who might actually be able to make a dent. P.S. Good luck earning 120K a year with your photography degree at 3M–I’ve seen you work, you’ll get fired the first week (smile).
Over the course of the next few weeks we’ll be taking a much closer look at aspects of the problems of homelessness and affordable housing in Minneapolis and Hennepin County–that “look” will include tracing some of the career trajectories of the people running this expensive shit-show. We will also provide some illustrations of the tactics this crowd has utilized and what happens when someone comes along who disagrees with how they do things. Actually, we’ll provide a number of instances drawn from a variety of sources over the course of years. This issue area needs an expose. The public needs to come to understand who these people are and what they do.
Nothing about us, without us! The secretive, non-public meetings of leadership need to stop. The endless self-promotion needs to come to an end. The impermeable coterie of vested leadership needs to be challenged and accountability needs to be raised to the level of a battle-cry and we need to call failure, failure.