Sledgehammers, pitchforks and bonding bills

Solutions for homelessness? Well, there's the sledgehammer approach in Hawaii and protesters waving pitchforks and torches in Portland, but the more effective approach comes from Utah.

Hawaii State Representative Tom Brower wields a sledgehammer, smashing shopping carts used by homeless people. Well — unless he can tell what store they belong to, in which case he dumps the homeless person's belongings on the ground and takes the cart back to the store. HuffPost said he's not worried about getting in a dispute with a homeless person:

"When you are walking down the sidewalk with a sledgehammer," he told the Star-Advertiser, "people get out of your way."

We wonder why.

Brower is a Democrat, so you might think that the Republicans in Utah would be even more harsh. Not so — their idea is Utah's HousingWorks program, according to its website, is aimed at preventing homelessness and at housing people who have been chronically homeless:

"The State of Utah has adopted the Housing First approach which provides permanent supportive housing to chronically homeless individuals so they can focus on stabilizing their disabling condition in a safe and supportive environment. Here, housing is not contingent on participation in supportive treatment programs or an expectation of abstention from drugs or alcohol, but on the basics of good tenancy. Residents are guaranteed stable housing as long they are good stewards of their personal and shared housing areas and maintain good relations with other tenants, case managers, and property managers."

Utah explains that their plan is based on studies in other places, such as San Francisco and Denver, showing large savings from providing permanent, supportive housing. The savings were realized through large reductions in emergency room and inpatient costs.

Unfortunately, lots of places haven't gotten the message. NPR reports on a number of cities where the preferred solution is trying to chase homeless people out of parks or off the streets or, generally, out of sight.

Portland is one of those cities. The Portland Housing Bureau estimates that about 4,000 people sleep on the streets or in shelters on any given night. Al Jazeera and Huffington Post reported that the city has been clearing out homeless camps and rousting homeless people sleeping on the streets. Last week demonstrators took torches and pitchforks to city hall to protest the city policies and "shame the mayor into action."

After decades of experience with homelessness, and the increased homelessness coming with the Great Recession, do we know whether sledgehammers or supportive housing work better? Not much question: Utah's supportive housing approach succeeds.

"Utah has reduced its rate of chronic homelessness by 78 percent over the past eight years, moving 2000 people off the street and putting the state on track to eradicate homelessness altogether by 2015."

So what's happening in Minnesota?

Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative works to provide a combination of housing and supportive services to help move into employment or deal with the other needs. For more on Beacon's programs, see Sheila Regan's recent article, Beacon offers hope to low-income renters.

Homeless youth face a special set of challenges: Cynthia Boyd's MinnPost article features Lina Warner, who tells her story of couch-hopping and using YouthLink's drop-in services to get through years of homelessness. The article's focus is $4.2 million in funding from the Homeless Youth Act, passed last year by the Minnesota legislature.

The common theme in discussing policies and homelessness in Minnesota is that we know what to do, but don't have the money to do it. That's also a theme in this year's bonding initiative for Heading Home: Minnesota’s Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. Governor Mark Dayton has proposed bonding of $50 million, the largest amount of bonding dollars ever, according to a blog post by Beacon director Lee Blons. But, she notes, that's only half of the amount called for by Minnesota Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal in the Heading Home plan. 

Related stories: 

• Renting, from rats to riches

 A room of one's own: The plight of tenants in a landlords' market 

• For low income renters, few affordable housing options in Minneapolis, St. Paul

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    Mary Turck's picture
    Mary Turck

    Mary Turck (maryturck [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer, editor, teacher, and lifelong activist, and former editor of the TC Daily Planet.