At a recent meeting discussing strategies to reduce homelessness in Anchorage, tension was high and patience was low. In a moment of frustration, one of the influential participants stated, “We’ve got to do something about these people.”
But the problem isn’t people, the problem is policy. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Our enemy is not other people. Our enemy is hatred, violence, discrimination, and fear.” Similarly, people experiencing homelessness are not our enemy, as if they were some sort of invading army. Homeless people are refugees who are fleeing from our common enemy: the policies that cause and perpetuate homelessness.
People are often outraged at the most ghoulish and garish effects of homelessness: tent cities, crime, messes of every sort left in our public spaces — all of the visible signs and struggles that make us most uncomfortable. In that outrage we can sometimes forget that homeless people are, first and foremost, people. They have hopes and regrets, fears and pride. They have parents and siblings, spouses and children. Frequently, they are children. Despite the stereotypes, they are typically not criminals. For the most, part they are people just like us, who only want a simple, decent place to live and work. They are not our enemy. They are ourselves.
If we feel the need to label something as the enemy, let it be our own short-sightedness because if we truly want to make lasting change, we can’t focus on short-term visible signs such as camp abatement and overnight sheltering. These reflexive responses have their place, but they do nothing to stop the problem from continuing. Relying on them is like mopping the floor while the ceiling is still leaking.
The comment made at the meeting was close. It should have been “We’ve got to do something about these policies.” Here’s how we can do just that:
Support prevention: Lifting someone out of homelessness is three times as expensive as preventing it in the first place. This prevention can be done in a handful of ways, including rent support funding, affordable health care (including mental health and addiction care), high-quality public transit and child care, and improved food stamp (SNAP) services. And more important than the savings in cost is the amount of trauma we will stop from impacting the lives of people of all ages.
Support nurturing: Even with good prevention in place, some people will fall into homelessness. For them, we should be providing holistic nurturing to build them up out of homelessness. A good example of such a program is Covenant House Alaska. Covenant House Alaska provides community, spiritual care, and love along with physical safety and nourishment. They provide education and job training to give kids the tools they need to be thriving and happy adults. Without meaningful programs like Covenant House Alaska, homelessness in Alaska would be catastrophically worse.
Support stable housing: The solution to homelessness is housing, with support. Without the creation of dignified living spaces that can be afforded by low-income people, none of the other strategies will ever take root. We provide housing first, and from there things like job training and care for mental health and addiction can have a real impact. But how on earth could we expect someone to train and interview for jobs when they spend the night outdoors in the snow? Start with the basic humanity of a home. That’s where everything else can be built.
Support long-term strategies: We have one in hand: The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness has a long range plan called the Anchored Home strategy. This has a scope extending beyond the fickleness of the next election cycle — and can provide us the sustained, strategic solutions we require to make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring.
And finally, we have to strongly and steadfastly support candidates who will implement these things.
The Anchorage of tomorrow will only be what we build it to be. There’s no need to frame issues of homelessness in terms of any enmity, because in the long-term, deepest sense, we’re all in this together.
The Rev. Matthew Schultz is an Anchorage pastor and a member of the steering committee of Christians for Equality.
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