Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Boggled by homelessness processing

There was a great cartoon in the paper years ago, possibly by Toles. It asked, "Do you have what it takes to be homeless?" Arrows pointed to the basic equipment: "arms", and then "legs". In fact neither are universal, but we're talking averages. Point is, it's not easy being homeless but it is easy to become homeless

You'd think there would be nothing simpler than homelesness. Offer housing, person lives in housing, person isn't homeless any more.

Except that we pathologize homelessness. We focus programs on people who most fit the system-maintaining stereotype of addiction or mental illness. Because it flatters the system to pretend that people only become homeless if, out of irrationality or badness, they "refuse" adquately available help. So rather than do relatively easy stuff like build houses for people before the people fall apart, our system waits until people fall apart really badly from stuff like sleeping outdoors or remaining with an abuser (or both at once), and then tries clunkily to build wraparound housing-service systems for them, except even those often still don't manage to wrap around.

A lot of good people hand out and receive homelessness program benefits. A lot of those good people spend their days lost in the bureaucratic minutiae of homelessness programs. Recipients are tracked like sea turtles, but less conveniently because there are objections to radio collars. Goals are set for them. Their meeting of such goals or lack thereof is noted and statistically processed. It all wastes the time of aid managers and aid recipients who could be doing something happier with their lives.

This post was inspired by a look at the HUD Homelessness Resource Exchange Web site, which is not, as you'd think, a clearinghouse for empty apartments. Instead, it is a window into the boggling heart of the federal homelessness bureaucracy. This is the page for Annual Perfomance Report Compliance. And this is an entry from its FAQ, in which we learn that "locked out" is when the records system won't accept your password.

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