About a week ago I went the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless General Membership Meeting. These meetings happen once a month and this was the first I had ever been to, but the volunteer from Annunciation House who usually goes invited me along to see what it was like.
I had absolutely no idea what these meetings were for or about, but based on the name of the organization and meeting I had assumed that it was a group that got together once a month to unite all the different organizations and people who are working to help the homeless to get together to confront problems faced by the homeless population. I was kind of, a little bit, right.
The coalition is a group with the purpose of coming together for this noble goal, but the meeting I attended was almost entirely focused on funding. Apparently the group, in addition to being a place to come together for a discussion of ideas, is also a place to come together for funding. Instead of each individual organization or non-profit applying to HUD (Housing and Urban Development) for funds, the coalition comes together to get a pool of money that is then distributed to the individual organizations.
Okay, that sounds pretty good so far. All of the organizations working together to help the homeless, deciding together how to spend funds. Sounds like a good way for the community to able to look at the specific conditions facing its homeless population and adjust funding for different projects based on the need in the community. I was pretty impressed until the discussion actually started and it was clear that was not at all what was going on.
HUD apparently decided that it was going to reduce the overall funds to the coalition by 5%, so the coalition had to decide where these funds would come from. However, HUD didn’t just say it must be reduced, but it said that it could not be 5% cuts across the board to all, as might be the first impression of what would be the best solution. No. Instead the decision must be based on “performance” by the organizations, according to standards set by HUD. For anyone following current education policy debates, this kind of rank and punish system based on the federal government demanding quantitative performance data might sound a little familiar. In this case, the indicators were the percentage of people leaving the program with the following four things: employment, cash benefits, non-cash benefits, and permanent housing.
I agree that if you had to say the goals of homeless organizations, these would be some pretty good ones. But ranking all of these organizations the same when they serve different populations is blatantly unfair. For instance, there is one homeless shelter in El Paso that is the primary one to serve the chronically homeless and those with mental illness. It should be abundantly clear to anyone that this shelter will have a harder time getting their population jobs and permanent housing than shelters who primarily serve those who have temporarily fallen onto hard times. Therefore, comparing the percentages across the shelters is just grossly unfair (just like comparing schools with large percentages of special education and English Language Learners against schools with small percentages of these populations is obviously unfair, but that’s for a different blog post).
This would also be a relevant time to say that Annunciation House doesn’t get funding from this or any other government source. We were just there to see what was going on with other services for the homeless that could affect our guests. In fact, we don’t even officially keep this data, let alone submit it to the government, which is good considering we serve many undocumented immigrants who would not be eligible for government cash or non-cash benefits, nor are the authorized to find employment (though some of our guests who are not undocumented are eligible for these things for different reasons based on their immigration situation) so we might not get a very high score either.
I’ll leave out the details of the discussion, but suffice it to say that the man who came to represent that shelter I mentioned above was outraged and upset by these changes. The coalition board of directors came to the meeting with different scenarios that all paying members could then vote on and all included different funding cuts that would affect different programs of that shelter and that shelter alone. It was all “supportive services” that were being cut, as HUD is trying to move in the direction of only funding emergency shelter and direct housing.
Now, this move could seem to almost make sense at first. The federal government is always trying to find places to cut funding for programs, so it would make sense that the Housing and Urban Development would want to move towards only funding housing initiatives. However, let me give an example of one of the things that is a supportive service that was discussed being cut. That shelter provides transportation for things like jobs, mental and physical health appointments, education and training, etc. and it is available to anyone homeless in the city (we sometimes use them to provide transportation for our guests as well). I think it is quite clear how providing this transportation to work, for example, would directly affect and improve the number of homeless individuals who can have a job. But no, sorry, it’s not housing so HUD isn’t really that interested in continuing to fund it or similar programs. The long-term goal of HUD would no longer provide funding for these sorts of vital programs that definitely help the homeless achieve HUD’s stated goals.
But in this meeting we didn’t yet have to cut all supportive services, just some. And while it is not official yet, it looks like the mental health program, including the psychiatrist, will be cut from that shelter where 50% of the people who stay there are mentally ill. Congratulations America, our bad decisions are continuing. But in all seriousness, having to resort to making these kinds of decisions is dangerous and counterproductive. If we want to create a society in which all people who live in it are able to contribute to the best of their abilities then we cannot and should not be heading in this direction. To be fair, the shelter can apply for grants from other sources than just HUD, but the government should be making it easier, not harder, to work on progressive and comprehensive solutions towards eliminating homelessness.
It was painful for me to watch this process happen before my eyes, and even more painful to consider how few people know or care about these changes. I mean, it was just dumb luck that I happened to be at the meeting and hear about it, but I can guarantee that I will continue to take this sense of utter bewilderment with me as a source of inspiration to work for change in a positive and productive direction.
*Note: All of these conclusions that I came to were based on observations I made or statements said by others. Therefore, while I believe I understood everything correctly that I wrote about, I apologize if there were any mistakes or misunderstandings, as it was my first meeting so I didn’t necessarily have a great working knowledge of the subject matter.