COMMENTARY: A Home Where The Buffalo Roam


jeffdeeney1.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY In yesterday’s Inquirer there was another article in a long series of familiar articles telling us yet again that the city’s homeless shelter system is a dismal failure. The shelter system cannot provide even basic services to many who engage it, let alone make a start towards the city’s stated goal of ending homelessness. There’s really nothing new, here; we all know how this story goes. Though the unique twist in this particular article was its focus on the groaning, overcrowded family shelters, reporting that they are already at capacity early in the system’s peak summer months and turning away families who are left to fend for themselves on the streets.

If you’ve been reading Phawker for a while you remember that I was consistently pounding the table on exactly this issue back in 2007 and 2008 while working with a homeless program deploying a new no-shelter model that put families directly into permanent housing. My message then was the same as my message now: families need immediate access to permanent housing rather than languishing in overcrowded, typically filthy shelters where the average wait for a permanent housing placement is a full year. Families I worked with who had tried to run this gauntlet reported that during that long delay between entering the system and getting housing they decided to walk away from the institution citing the lack of privacy, overbearing rule structures and overall poor living conditions inside shelters. Many families choose to fend for themselves on the streets, usually doubling up in precarious temporary housing arrangements with friends and family rather than stick it out in the shelter. Their children usually changed schools numerous times during this period of instability. Family homelessness and the shelter system are not surprisingly correlated with a number of negative outcomes in child development.

In the Inquirer article Marsha Cohen, in my experience a dedicated and extremely able attorney who runs the equally excellent Homeless Advocacy Project, calls the city’s family shelter situation, “unconscionable.” She waves off city administration excuses saying, “This is the third consecutive year that the city has seen (full shelters during months of peak usage).” She asks how the city could possibly be caught flat footed, knowing the trend and having plenty of time to prepare a solution that wouldn’t leave moms wandering bus stations with their kids looking for benches to spend the night on. Dainette Mintz, the head of the city’s Office of Supportive Housing which runs shelters, has no answers in the story. Unfortunately, the Inquirer doesn’t put any very hard questions to her about her agency’s short comings, because someone really needs to put them to her.

Mintz is a career bureaucrat who for 22 years worked in and then presided over a homeless services system that at all times during her tenure has been an abject failure. There is simply no softer way to put it; the fact is that Mintz cannot provide any credible evidence to counter the assertion while supporting evidence is so abundant as to be self-evident. The policies her office supported over those two decades, that relied heavily on expensive institutional settings, policies with no research backing supporting their effectiveness, that we now know empirically do not function to reduce the numbers of people living on the streets, are simply bad and wrong. What’s worse is that evidence based practices that rely on providing permanent housing first, then bringing into the community the supportive services necessary to keep the home stable have been largely ignored. Evidence based programs that in other cities have demonstrated an ability to reduce homeless populations continue to constitute the smallest piece of Philadelphia’s overall framework for ending homelessness. Sounds like a recipe for continued failure, doesn’t it?

Mintz and the shelter-based homeless services providers she oversees come from an outdated era of social policy that assumed big institutions were better. Theirs is a paternalistic framework that assumes poor people can’t take care of themselves; they need people with college degrees to do it for them. The various failed institutions built by the old guard of social policy by-and-large are being torn down, communities made stronger for their disappearance. High rise housing projects are being demolished; thousands of families are healthier, safer and happier in the communities they integrated into after leaving them. Mental institutions have been shuttered; thousands of men and women with mental health disorders are thriving in the community where the services they need are now provided. Nursing homes that keep the disabled dependent on the state are being shut; with minimal accommodations in the community those same people now get around just fine, holding jobs and living full and productive lives previous generations assumed they never could. The list goes on.

Homeless shelter providers will tell you that we can’t shut shelters because some people just can’t thrive in housing, they need to be made “housing ready” by the system first. This is frankly a crap assertion that has no evidence to support it. All the services that a homeless person needs to thrive in the community – mental health treatment, medical treatment, addiction treatment, child welfare oversight, housing subsidies — can and should be provided in the community, from a permanent housing base, not inside an institution. Doing so will save the city money and spare future generations of homeless families and individuals the humiliating and frustrating experience of being stuck inside an ineffectual system that presumes their helplessness rather than build on their strengths. But first you will have to convince professionals who have long worked inside this failed model that for all their good intentions and efforts, we’re not getting the outcomes we need, and things need to change.

This message, that any homelessness solution that does not start with first providing permanent housing is doomed to fail, has over the past decade rippled up from the grassroots to become the official message of the Obama Administration. Just yesterday, HUD’s Peter True wrote on the agency’s blog that the Administration is rolling out “the first ever strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Not reduce it, not redefine it, but end it.” This plan is based on the “rapid rehousing” model that relies on shelters as nothing more than short term triage centers where a family can stay a night or two before getting the financial assistance needed to quickly move back into the community.

Rapid rehousing (a version of the kind of program I worked for and was pounding the table about 4 years ago) will effectively end family homelessness. But before it can we need to completely reconfigure the system, stripping the resources sucked up by failed institutions and reassigning them to programs based on models that work. Getting this done is going to take strong leadership guided by the same vision that guides the new school of social policy, that understands that removing people from their communities and placing them in institutions is wrong, and that getting people quickly and efficiently integrated back into their communities and linking them to the services they need there is right. It will require leadership from someone willing to make incredibly unpopular political decisions with huge financial implications, that will go against the massive inertia of a vast, outdated apparatus that actively seeks status quo regardless of evidence or outcomes. Ultimately, the question is whether Dainette Mintz, a career bureaucrat who has presided over 22 years of failed homeless policy and programming, is the right person to lead the city into this new era.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on The Daily Beast, PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is currently working on a book about life in the crossfire of poverty, drugs, guns, and the bureaucracies designed to remedy them, all of which informed his experiences as a social worker in some of the city’s most dire and depleted neighborhoods. 

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