From the Homeless Corner: In This Week’s Column, Dr. Bob, a former Marine, Argues That Our Expanding Military Adds to Our Economic Decline
Robert Cox: I’m not just a squishy liberal. I’m an ex-marine, a retired educator with a Ph.D. in philosophy and literature, a senior activist with a nice little government stipend, which gives me the freedom to do the important work of a citizen. I have no agenda beyond a desire to reduce the suffering caused by homelessness. I believe we should spend more time on healing our communities, and less time on figuring out how to take them back. Law enforcement has its place, but it’s not the solution. Ask any cop.
Based on the number of positive responses to the last week’s column, I will be making a weekly contribution to these pages. I intend to continue sharing what I’m learning about the causes for the accelerating number of homeless people, and I will be reporting on efforts underway to alleviate suffering.
First, the big picture: Any honest appraisal of the present homeless crisis in Humboldt County, and across the country, it seems to me, must include our domestic economic decline and its connection to our expanding imperial and military presence abroad. According to the distinguished historian Chalmers Johnson, it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to sustain both democracy at home and imperialism abroad. Based on a careful reading of the rise and fall of past empires, Chalmers lays out the road map that brought us to the state of affairs. In 2010, two years after the publication of Nemesis, the Last Days of the American Republic, Chalmers writes:
“In Nemesis I have tried to present historical, political, economic, and philosophical evidence of where our current behavior is likely to lead. Specifically, I believe that to maintain our empire abroad requires resources and commitments that will inevitably undercut our domestic democracy and in the end produce a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent. The founders of our nation understood this well and tried to create a form of government – a republic – that would prevent this from occurring. But the combination of huge standing armies, almost continuous wars, military Keynesianism, and ruinous military expenses have destroyed our republican structure in favor of an imperial presidency. We are on the cusp of losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire. Once a nation is started down that path, the dynamics that apply to all empires come into play – isolation, overstretch, the uniting of forces opposed to imperialism, and bankruptcy. Nemesis stalks our life as a free nation.”
I don’t know about you, but I find the rise of homelessness and the crackdown by police chilling. Harsher measures, which are being encouraged by those who want to further criminalize homelessness and see it as a law enforcement issue, will only promote worse behavior, and justify even more punitive measures, leading to more lawlessness and incarceration. Given that it costs is at least $50,000 to house a person in jail for a year, a growing number of municipalities are finding that housing-first is a much cheaper option. At the ridiculous extreme there’s the ex-marine who died on the streets of Reno: before he passed he managed somehow to run up a million dollars in medical and drug treatment costs. Therefore, to many it’s becoming clear that homelessness is just the tip of the iceberg; not only is it expensive, it’s undermining our democracy. Logically, then, until we address the underlying causes of homelessness and find ways to create a more sustainable economy, housing the homeless appears to be a more affordable, safer short-term solution. Housing-first programs around the country report that they are saving a ton of money, while reducing suffering and harm.
So within the context of some understanding of how our diminishing resources for resolving domestic conflicts, its connection to the costs of engaging in what has become a continuous war, and the maintenance of over 700 military operations around the world, I decided to fork over the $100 registration fee to attend a one-day conference hosted by Northern California Nonprofits on the 5th of December. Given the title, “Confluences, a coming or flowing together, meeting or gathering at one point,” I wasn’t disappointed.
As a self-appointed community health advocate with a special interest in understanding the confluences that drive the homelessness crisis, in the hope of raising our awareness, so we’re in a better position to explore ways to recover from the human and environmental degradation we see everywhere, the organizers’ intent was right on: “We hope you’ll have meaningful opportunities to network as organizations…; gain tools for effectively doing your work; enhance your systems of support; and have important conversations about how to strengthen your communities.”
I actually spent many years in Humboldt and Del Norte counties in collaborations that resulted in, for example, the creation of the John Muir Charter School, which now serves 3,000 students working for service and conservation corps across California; a College of the Redwoods’ Certificate in Applied Environmental Technology in partnership with just about every natural resource conservation steward in the region, NPS, USFS, State Parks, Fish and Game, the Redwood Action Agency, Rural Human Services, CDF, Cal Trans, etc.; a comprehensive drug and alcohol program in partnership with Del Norte County and the California Wellness Foundation; and, at the old California Conservation Corps’ camp at the mouth of the Klamath River, we managed to hire a full-time career counselor through Rural Human Services with funding from the federal Workforce Investment Act, which made it possible to achieve a fully integrated program redesigned to “graduate environmentally literate citizens who know how to get things done”.
So, the conference for me was mainly about reconnecting with the kind of people who use a collaborative process every day to provide critical services in just about every quarter of our community. I’m an example of how it works: my career demonstrates the impact and importance of nonprofits right here on the north coast. Over my career, the partnerships with non-profits, with their resourceful adaptability and can-do spirit, determined the difference between success and failure of the work that mattered most.
For our purposes here, when I reflect on how successful collaborations work, the breakout session I attended in the afternoon laid out a model similar to the one I learned from MIT instructors in the early 90s. Here’s how it typically works: a group of people come together who share a common interest in or responsibility for meeting a particular need or serving a defined population, children, seniors, the mentally ill, young adults, battered women, etc. Let’s say a group of government employees and people from various non-profits meet because they share an interest in reducing homelessness. After a lively brain-storming session, they craft a shared intention statement: “There will be a pillow for every head in places that are suitable and safe for each individual within a diverse population made up of people and subgroups with very different needs and requirements”. I would expect our group to draft a set of guiding principles to insure ordered grouping based on similarities and differences around age, gender, mental health and physical health, level of needed support, security needs, and so on.
Planning within a group typically moves to a consideration of current reality after establishing a shared vision or intention. So now the group can see what current reality looks like compared to what the group wants to create together. From there it gets interesting. A strategic thinking mental model comes into play: how do we begin closing the gap? What resources do we already have, whose got what? What else do we need? What are the barriers? What’s critical, what can wait, where can we get the biggest bang for the buck, where can we find more money or other resources, etc. From there assignments are made, future meetings are scheduled, and some sort of continuous improvement model is activated around a set of questions, beginning with a reminding question: tell me again, what is it we said we are going to do together? Then: How are we doing? What’s working, what isn’t? What have we learned? Barriers, opportunities, what’s next?
Even a cursory review of the relevant documents produced by members of the broad coalition of organizations working on the many features of homelessness, who have been trying to work with and around land use, economic development plans, zoning laws, urban development, etc. for years, it’s clear to me that they have done a good job. Looking at the big picture I also get the sense that the turmoil, fear and anger, the confusion, threats to the public, the stigma, misinformation etc. have created huge barriers to reducing the harm caused by and to the homeless.
All of this begs the question: Given all the time spent by competent people, and the dollars invested, why are we stuck in a worsening homeless crisis? I mean the homeless coalition has everything lined up to open a 50-person shelter, and they still can’t find a piece of property or indoor structure; granted, that’s a drop in the bucket; still it would be of value. Meanwhile more and more people are on the verge of falling into the abyss. Families with vouchers issued by Social Services can’t find a place to rent. Something like 10% of the students at HSU and CR are homeless. And so on…
So what’s going on here? In Tent City Urbanism, From Self-organized Camps to Tiny House Villages, which is a resource used by many across the country, Andrew Heben states the problem this way:
“Sprawling shantytowns may be a reality of Third World countries, but certainly not in the United States—right? To uphold this notion, we have adopted legal frameworks that make these informal settlements unlawful through various zoning, trespassing, and ant-camping regulations. Instead, one must hire professionals to design and build the house, and apply for permits to certify that the shelter adheres to standardized building code. A glaring problem with this approach is that not all citizens can or ever will meet the formal expectations of renting or owning a home. With the economic recession in 2008 followed by the housing foreclosure crisis in 2010, this truth has brought light to light for an even broader range of people.”
While laws, property rights, and the specialization of homebuilding give order to our society, they also ensure perpetual disorder and unrest through the creation of homelessness.”
If you look at the final “Homeless Policy Paper,” issued on August 12, 2014, which was commission by the City of Eureka and Humboldt County, you’ll find a comprehensive plan to end homelessness based on a “housing-first” model, which includes a developmental process that begins with subsidized housing for families, veterans, seniors, and others with special needs. Emergency shelters, sanctioned tent cities, and construction of affordable housing are all in the plan. But more and more people can’t afford housing that is regulated by current building and zoning codes. And the subsidies from HUD are drying up.
Now what? Many who have been working on the growing homeless issue for years believe that signing the Shelter Crisis Declaration would remove the barriers to executing an orderly, thoughtful plan that already exists. Fewer restrictions would allow the market to produce the kind of housing that lower-paid workers can afford, which don’t have to be an eye sore or substandard. Good for the environment, good for business, good for people. Poor people need a break, not a hand out. Who needs to live in a 2,000 square foot house? 700 would work better for many of us. I think we need to go back to the beginning and work on a shared intention.
The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. FDR
Stay safe, stay dry
Earlier Column: Not Just A Squishy Liberal: An Ex-Marine Talks Homelessness