No Wind. Just Gone.

On Friday night, the Night Watch team visited the MLK/Lee property (more here, here.) We were early and no one had come back to sleep yet, but there were signs that someone was still staying there. This afternoon, less than 48 hours later, I drove back by to check on a friend and discovered that the camps had been cleared:

MLK & Lee St. in Greensboro.  Homeless Camps.  Before & After.  June & July 2006. MLK & Lee St. in Greensboro.  Homeless Camps.  Before & After.  June & July 2006.

I’ve known for a while that this was coming, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. It was an eerie feeling to walk up to the place where a homeless friend was sleeping two nights ago on his bed in a shelter he’d built and now find only bare ground. My mind was racing and my heart was sinking, wondering what it must have felt like when he came back to sleep last night and found his bed and his belongings gone. I mean… I just cannot imagine.

I absolutely agree that land owners have a right to develop their own property. I recognize that this land did not belong to the homeless people who stayed there, and that they had no legal right to camp there. I acknowledge and am very thankful that City staff made repeated efforts to ensure that those staying on the property were informed that the land would be cleared, and that they were made aware of other possible options for the future. I am grateful for the concern and compassion showed by all the City folks I spoke to.

But I also know that the only reason that homeless people were camping on that property in the first place was because they had no place else to go. And my faith tradition tells me that I am my brother’s keeper. And if my brother (or sister) is homeless and lacks medical care, mental health treatment, substance abuse rehabilitation, affordable housing, or gainful employment, then as a member of this community, I share in the responsibility for making those things available. I still have a house and a bed, but I won’t rest easy until there’s a home for all of us.

And I can’t help wondering where our friends are sleeping tonight…

* * * * *

More before and after pictures here.

City clearing homeless camps at MLK & Lee; we look for residents

Yesterday, Katherine and I went back to visit the old Red Shield Lodge property at MLK and Lee, to see if we could find anyone else staying there. We found and talked with folks along MLK, and even met up with one guy walking across the property, but he just seemed to be on his way somewhere else.

Friday night during NightWatch, we visited the property and found one gentleman sleeping there. After we (accidentally) woke him up, we spent a while talking to him. We let him know that the City would be clearing the property soon, and talked about his options. Hopefully, he’ll follow up with the suggestions we gave him.

Gladwell: “Million Dollar Murray” & The Power-Law Theory of Homelessness

Members of The Guilford County Task Force to End Homelessness are reading Million Dollar Murray: Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage,” by Malcolm Gladwell (published in the March 2006 issue of the New Yorker.) It’s one of the best and most exhaustive articles that I’ve read about the problem of homelessness in our society, the specific issue of chronic homelessness, and the current efforts to end homelessness through the use of permanent supportive housing. I urge you to read it. It is educating, thought-provoking and challenging.

Some quotes:

The costs of chronic homelessness to a community:

“…if you totted up all his hospital bills for the ten years that he had been on the streets — as well as substance-abuse-treatment costs, doctors’ fees, and other expenses — Murray Barr probably ran up a medical bill as large as anyone in the state of Nevada. ‘It cost us one million dollars not to do something about Murray,’ O’Bryan said.”

The distribution of homelessness:

“Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. ‘We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,’ [Culhane] said.”

Chronic homelessness:

“It was the last ten per cent of the group at the farthest edge of the curve that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem — the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges — it’s this group that we have in mind.”

The fruitlessness of efforts that simply “manage” homelessness:

“There is no end to the issues. We do this huge drill. We run up big lab fees, and the nurses want to quit, because they see the same guys come in over and over, and all we’re doing is making them capable of walking down the block.”

We have the solution and we’re already spending the money:

“It’s a matter of a few hard cases, and that’s good news, because when a problem is that concentrated you can wrap your arms around it and think about solving it. The bad news is that those few hard cases are hard. They are falling-down drunks with liver disease and complex infections and mental illness. They need time and attention and lots of money. But enormous sums of money are already being spent on the chronically homeless, and Culhane saw that the kind of money it would take to solve the homeless problem could well be less than the kind of money it took to ignore it.”

Philip Mangano:

“The leading exponent for the power-law theory of homelessness is Philip Mangano, who, since he was appointed by President Bush in 2002, has been the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a group that oversees the programs of twenty federal agencies… [Mangano argues that you] build a shelter and a soup kitchen if you think that homelessness is a problem with a broad and unmanageable middle. But if it’s a problem at the fringe it can be solved.”

(Mr. Mangano visited Greensboro in February, for our Ten Year Plan Task Force Kickoff.)

The old rules don’t apply:

“The current philosophy of welfare holds that government assistance should be temporary and conditional, to avoid creating dependency. But someone who blows .49 on a Breathalyzer and has cirrhosis of the liver at the age of twenty-seven doesn’t respond to incentives and sanctions in the usual way.”

Tough choices:

“There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit — to observe the principle of universality — isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot… Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both.”

Something for everyone to reject:

“Power-law solutions have little appeal to the right, because they involve special treatment for people who do not deserve special treatment; and they have little appeal to the left, because their emphasis on efficiency over fairness suggests the cold number-crunching of Chicago-school cost-benefit analysis.”

Both the “right” in me and the “left” in me reject the proposed “power-law” solution to homelessness for the very reasons he states, but if I disconnect my head from my heart for a minute, I admit that it sounds good on paper. (However, I can’t live long with my head and heart detached, so….)