Is There a Homeless Industrial Complex That Perpetuates Homelessness?

By | Aug 5, 2013

going-out-of-businessIn recent years, the approach to homelessness dramatically changed from how to “manage” homelessness to how to “end” homelessness. This was not merely an alteration of semantics, but a systematic change in how to allocate the limited resources that were spent every year on America’s growing homelessness problem.

Even now, the speeches at conferences, forums, and workshops on ending homelessness are instilled with a sense of pride that the homeless services and housing world has its priorities and approaches right – allocate resources to immediately house people who are homeless, also known as “housing first”, and create detailed plans to end homelessness.

But do those of us in the “business” of ending homelessness really have it right?

For years, I heard directors of homeless agencies and key leaders in the field say, “We are working toward going out of business, when there is a day that there is no homelessness.” Are these hollow feel-good words?

Communities across this country were mandated by HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) to create plans to end homelessness. When the plans are compared to each other, most are very similar.

But I do not know of any community plan that actually details how to dismantle the existing homeless service system after homelessness has ended. Where do all of the Executive Directors, Development Directors, and Finance Directors go after the agencies go out of business? How about the social workers, security guards, and peer counselors? Do we sell off all the agencies’ property and assets?

Within the agencies that I lead, we have nearly 250 employees. Should I be giving everyone a post-dated pink slip, explaining to them that they will all be out of a job within the next 5 to 10 years (depending on what plan we are going from), since homelessness will end and there will be no need for our services?

Peter Buffet, a scion of the famed Warren Buffet, recently penned an op-ed piece, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” that has turned the charity world upside down. Some of his points are poignant reminders of how charities (perhaps, even within the homelessness world) trend toward perpetuation rather than elimination:

Philanthropic Colonialism – Buffet says that the charity world would rather transport a solution to a local social issue (in our case, homelessness) from the outside (for example, “housing first”) rather than understand the local dynamics and resources for why the issue is actually occurring in a local neighborhood. He infers that this causes perpetuation.

A Growing Charity World – In a span of ten years, from 2001 to 2011, the philanthropic world has increased by 25%, a clear sign of perpetuation.

In the homeless charity world, local homeless agencies are going out of business. Not because homelessness has ended, but because they financially cannot keep their doors open.

The world of homeless services and housing remains massive. The federal government alone spends several billion dollars per year, not including private dollars. Some would say that the system of ending homelessness should increase because the need is increasing.

Conscience Laundering – Is all of this charitable energy to end homelessness simply a guilt-relieving exercise for those of us who are not homeless? Are political and community leaders investing in homelessness to keep, as Buffet would say, “the existing structure of inequality in place”?

“The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”

I don’t think any of the leaders I have worked with to end homelessness would think they are putting in 60-hour work-weeks to prevent a revolution from occurring in this country, nor do they feel guilty because they are not homeless. On the contrary, our energy in this social struggle is because we are called to help those who are hurting, and because we, too, feel we could be without a home given the fragility of this economy.

Buffet’s assessment of this country’s charity industry may be correct in many cases. But within the homeless services and housing world, the goal of ending homelessness in this country is a public expression that the homeless charity world truly wants to go out of business, and not become what Buffet calls a “perpetual poverty machine”.

While some may feel ending homelessness is utopian, or wishful thinking at best, the direction and approach to its realization are correct.

When industry leaders and funders begin to help homeless agencies transfer their staff to other employment sectors and guide organization on how to sell their assets, then I may need to start issuing pink slips. Ironically issuing pink slips might be cause for celebration, because homelessness will have ended.