When the subject is homelessness, we hear the word “eradicate” a lot -- the idea that the problem can be completely eliminated. Indeed, “Strategies for Eradicating Homelessness” was the title of a panel at Governing’s recent Summit on Health and Human Services. But I doubt that either of the two panelists, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry or James Mathy, the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services’ housing administrator, would tell you that the outstanding work their jurisdictions are doing will result in the outright eradication of homelessness.
It’s time to change the way cities and counties deal with the issue, but our conception of homelessness makes it more difficult to do what needs to be done: manage it in an efficient, effective and sustainable way. There always is going to be a stream of newly homeless individuals. Right now, a convergence of issues -- including the affordable housing crisis, the shortage of resources for mental health treatment, rising rates of addiction to opioids and other drugs, and income volatility resulting from the changing nature of work and the stagnation of wages -- has made this perennial fact even more intractable.
But as governments become more assertive, they are often going to be seen as intruding in a space long dominated by nongovernmental players. In Albuquerque, as in many cities, services for the homeless are delivered by an array of faith groups, community organizations and nonprofits. When Berry created the Heading Home initiative, it was seen as disruptive. There was resistance to change. But the mayor brought multiple stakeholders to the table, listened to them, and showed them the gaps and overlaps in services. His message was that there was an opportunity to innovate and thrive.
Mathy says Milwaukee County’s Housing First project also met some resistance from the network of nonprofits and community groups serving the homeless. Eventually, however, people came to realize that it wasn’t about cutting their funding but about serving the homeless in a more comprehensive and effective way. As in Albuquerque, the county took a systematic approach. Under the new initiative, for example, one of the shelters became more of an overall homeless services agency.
An important part of the way local governments manage homelessness will be changing the way the public perceives the problem. People tend to think of homelessness as an individual issue, divorced from larger economic forces, rather than as a collective one. That tends to increase the public’s sense of fatalism about the problem, limiting support for it as a legitimate one for government to manage.
We need to begin to conceptualize dealing with homelessness as an ongoing core function of local government and acknowledge that cities and counties can no more eradicate it completely than they can fill every pothole or stop every crime. What they can do, and what Albuquerque and Milwaukee County seem to be doing well, is to be more assertive and responsible in managing it.