You know, I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few days. Having been slaughtered on Facebook for the op-ed I wrote in the News and Record on Sunday – by the way, I didn’t send in the title, “Homeless Services Don’t Belong Downtown.” That was from the N&R. I blogged a very similar piece the week before and titled it, “Move Homeless Services Away From Downtown?” That’s a question, not an answer.
I want to tell y’all how I feel about homelessness overall, and give you a little more background. A relative newcomer by some standards, I’ve learned what I’ve learned since February, 2013. I’ve cared for people deeply and done what I thought was the right thing consistently, the best way I knew how, every step, I have not faltered. I’ve done everything from coordinating food resources to fighting for more days in the shelter. I’ve had a “Birthday Party for Everybody” and taken folks to Triad Stage to see “Snowqueen.” I’ve raised money, blogged their personal stories, crusading for folks to see them as people and not a “social problem.” I have fought against the use of the terms “the homeless” because people become labels, and “feeding the homeless,” because you feed dogs and babies, not your friends. Monday, I spoke about homelessness and how folks can help to a group at a law firm. This morning, I’ll be speaking to a garden club. The list goes on.
Over time, I realized that what I was doing the first couple of years was not helping in any substantive way. I was helping them survive outside, even trying to give them access to cultural things folks with resources enjoy. I was in relationship, friendship, with many of them, but it was not helping folks’ situations to change.
So I changed my focus, started thinking about causes of folks dealing with chronic homelessness. (Note that I’m not talking about folks who lost their job, are down on their luck, stuff like that. According to HUD, only 4% of people who ever experience homelessness fall into the chronic category.) Mental illness and substance abuse are the number one causes of chronic homelessness. As long as we aren’t dealing with those two issues, we’ll just keep getting what we’ve got – and folks will just keep needing a whole lot of homeless services. And we, as local taxpayers, are going to need to keep being able to foot the bill.
I’ve been thinking for a while now about how we get jobs in here. I read Thomas Friedman’s November, 2016, book, “Thank You For Being Late,” that talks about how things will be solved on a local level in this century. I’ve met with several City Council members in the last few weeks and asked them what Raleigh and Charlotte are doing that we’re not, how they are attracting jobs, how we can improve transportation, etc. So I didn’t just start thinking about the local economy and jobs last week.
And then, whap! I met Jerry, the guy I wrote about, who told me that having homeless services downtown affects businesses. It had never occurred to me before that moving homeless services would even be possible. Frankly, the effects on business and development had not crossed my mind. I feel guilty (and stupid) saying that. That means I’ve been considering only one group myself, for years. That’s not okay. I tend to fight for the underdog, but how does that work? Don’t decisions need to consider all parties? Isn’t success born of compromise and all voices at the table? Asking very tough questions?
So, I’m taking a firm stand today on my question. I do think we need to move homeless services out of the downtown business district. Twenty years ago, when nothing much was going on downtown, it made sense for services to be there. Today, downtown businesses and homeless services are bumping up against each other. We need to rethink this and look at what’s workable for all parties. We need more jobs.