I was sitting in a downtown business association office, at a polished wooden corporate table, surrounded by plush leather chairs and a daunting row of black and white mug shots of past CEOs presiding over our proceedings.
At the table sat local business leaders, neighborhood stakeholders, law enforcement reps, and the Deputy City Attorney. Despite the way it sounds, the discussion on the agenda was not how to increase jobs or how to bolster a Republican political campaign.
The topic was homelessness.
In this downtown business neighborhood situated on one of America’s finest coastal harbors, increasing profits – and jobs, for that matter – means creating a tourist-friendly environment. Those visiting from another part of the country, or world, want their vacation destination to be clean, safe, fun, and relaxing. Add in a few plush hotels and trendy watering holes, and you have a veritable Shangri-La.
Who wants to step over an impoverished person sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a resort? With resort cities competing for dwindling tourist dollars (or yen, or euros, or yuan), no city wants their visitors to return home and tell their friends that their vacation was unsafe, dirty, or depressing.
So the discussion around the business table last week was about the collision of business and homelessness. And, like any other wreck, the remnants are material debris, political sparks, and human injury. There is usually no harmony between a tourist-friendly business environment and homelessness.
When city leaders try to clean up the belongings of people living on the streets, try to stop groups from feeding people in public spaces, or seek to prevent people from sleeping on the streets, homelessness advocates slap them with civil rights lawsuits.
The result is a desist order, along with years of painstaking negotiations that typically turn into an unending debate. In the meantime, piles of debris stack up on the streets, more and more people set up tents along sidewalks, and lines of hungry people at a public feeding site queue around the block like they’re waiting in line for the latest iPad.
In order to resolve these lawsuits, cities have tried to set up public storage centers for people who are homeless, so city services can clean up their streets. But there are never enough storage bins to go around, and people from outside the area will come in to use them.
Cities will try to build more shelter beds in order to implement illegal lodging ordinances. But if there are 1,000 people living on the streets, no city will build 1,000 shelter beds. Instead, a compromise is typically reached, never really building enough to house everyone.
And nobody wins in a debate about whether or not religious groups should be allowed to feed hungry people in public spaces. Who wants to shut down “God’s work?”
So the remnants of the collision persist, like an abandoned, unkempt house in the middle of a pristine suburban neighborhood.
What is the solution?
Everyone in the community wants the same outcome: No more homelessness. The business owner, the leader of the homeowners association, the social worker, the politician, and the person living on the street. We just argue over the means to that end.
At the conference table last week, the discussion steered toward solutions rather than debate. We all know that homelessness ends when people move off the streets and into homes, with or without supportive services.
So rather than create compromising solutions, like a handful of shelter beds or tiny storage bins that temporarily store people’s treasures, why not take all of these resources and use them to help house the most vulnerable people on the streets first?
Store material possessions while someone is on a waiting list to access housing. Provide a shelter bed for people who are ready and willing to move into an apartment. Line up permanent supportive housing, starting with the most hurting and vulnerable people.
Those are what I call strategic corporate decisions, and the whole community will profit from them.
Photo by Engin Erdogan.