Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Children See More Clearly Than Adults

I love living in Seattle, especially this time of year when the sun shines, the temperatures are mild, there are no flying insects to speak of, the foliage is lush, and the mountains are out. My wife and I have lived a lot of places, visited even more, and we've concluded together that this is the place for us. We aren't the only ones who like it here. The city has once again topped the list of fastest growing US cities, which doesn't surprise me given all the construction taking place here in my downtown neighborhood and elsewhere.

Of course, no place is paradise. One of the first things visitors ask me about are the sheer number of apparently homeless people they see on our streets, sleeping doorways, camping under bridges, and and panhandling for pennies. Our homeless population is increasing right along with our overall population, which is tragic given that homelessness has been on the decline nationwide, even statewide, for a number of years. 

Our school is located in the Fremont Baptist Church where Pastor Gay and her congregation do what they can to serve our local population of chronically homeless folks, "Pastor Gay's men," many of whom are either mentally ill, addicted, or both. I've gotten to know many of them over the years and while we tend to keep a cautious distance from some of them, we consider them to be part of our community. Which explains why the children and I have regular conversation about homelessness.

Twelve years ago, the Bush administration challenged states to come up with 10 year plans to end chronic homelessness. Judging by the nationwide decline, it looks like the initiative was effective, even as it seems few of the plans attained their loftiest goals. Yet while Seattle and King County, which has taken a more "conventional" approach to the problem, stands as a failure (and I mean that statistically, not as a dig at dedicated homeless advocates), the state of Utah has reduced its number of chronically homeless by 91 percent in the same timeframe.

Why has Utah succeeded so spectacularly while others have failed? Because they started by simply giving homes to the homeless, no strings attached. That's right, they don't have to be "clean and sober" and they don't have to prove they are looking for gainful employment: the state is simply giving them homes. This is the exact solution proposed, year in and year out, by the children I teach.

"Give them a home."

"Give them a toilet."

"Give them a place to keep their stuff."

In fact, the kids have offered to give up their play house, their playground, even their classroom, to provide homes for the homeless people they see every day. And as Utah is proving, it is that simple.

I don't want to pretend that all is perfect in Utah. The chronically homeless (most of whom are mentally ill or addicted) only make up about 22 percent of the overall homeless population at any given moment, but the state has reduced that number to about six percent, a significant success. But more importantly, they are showing us that the children are right: you solve homelessness by giving people homes. It is the moral thing to do. It is far less expensive than the so-called Continuum of Care model that unnecessarily complicates things without showing results. And for many people it gives them the opportunity to turn their own lives around.

As Sam Tsemberis says, the man described as the "godfather" of Utah's Housing First movement, "There is no empirical support for the practice of requiring individuals to participate in psychiatric treatment or attain sobriety before being housed." Indeed, those are are the failed policies of ideological adults, whereas the simple, straight-forward, non-ideological solution always suggested by the children I've taught for nearly two decades turns out to be the one that has evidence to support it.

When it comes to compassion, when it comes to helping the poor, the disenfranchised, the wretched, it seems that children see more clearly than adults. If we had been listening to them all along, I expect our nation's shameful tragedy of homelessness would have been solved long ago.

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1 comment:

Flavia said...

I think that most children would do a better job of governing than most politicians.