Useless, Ineffective Government Bodies

We're at no shortage of governmental flaws and failures to talk about -- whether addressing the federal government or state and local governments. We all watched the congressional bickering play out in the summer of 2011 as many people whose lives were destroyed by natural disasters were made to wonder if Congress would add insult to injury by cutting off their assistance, we almost defaulted on our national debt and President Obama urged Congress to play nicely (with people's lives, I must add). While some disasters were averted, Americans (and the whole world, thanks to technology) were made keenly aware of the ineffectiveness of our national government (if they hadn't already known).

My anti-capitalist friends and I are left to wonder how much of the dysfunction of government is due to the shortcomings of our elected officials and how much of it is due to them being unsympathetic, intransigent, war-loving, imperialistic capitalists who are deliberately throwing their poor constituents to the wolves. I like to think the best of people; so, I'll assume that the federal government and other governments of our nation are just plain stupid. After all, if they don't want to be pegged as stupid, they'd have to admit that they are purposefully useless and ineffective -- essentially indicting themselves on charges of societal "murder" rather than "involuntary manslaughter". Who would be so stupid? In either case, the verdict is the same: They're not working for the people and need to go.

While this blog post will address the idiocy which our governments incorporate while "attempting" to address the homeless issue, let us remember that the way in which they approach homelessness is a microcosm of their overall dysfunction. People who address other societal ills could very easily replace my references to homelessness and the agencies which "work to end it" with terms that are specific to their respective issues and the contents of this post would still hold true. So, at the risk of writing a very long blog post, I'll only address the ways in which our nation's governments have failed their poorest constituents -- the homeless.

Feel free to use this post to highlight any and all governmental failures. But be advised that your efforts may last well into eternity.

I was recently informed about a report which was prepared in May 2005 by the Urban Institute of Washington, DC which was subcontracted under Walter R. McDonald and Associates, the agency contracted to perform the study for HUD (the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development). Following the list of defendants...err acknowledgements, the first paragraph reads:

"Homelessness prevention is an essential element of any effort to end homelessness either locally or nationwide. To close the front door of entry into homelessness, the central challenge of prevention is targeting our efforts toward those people that will become homeless without the intervention. Providing prevention assistance to people who would not otherwise become homeless is an inefficient use of limited homelessness dollars."

Do you mean to tell me that it took dozens of well-paid intellectuals, government officials, government contractors and subcontractors doing a national study to arrive at the conclusion that "prevention is the best medicine" and "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? We've known this for eons! Even so, I'm glad they're finally learning what the average tenth-grader knows. But, almost a full seven years later, we've yet to see this age-old wisdom applied on a national level.

And the third sentence is chock full of unconventional wisdom too: "Providing prevention assistance to people who would not otherwise become homeless is an inefficient use of limited homelessness dollars." (For the slow government officials who might be reading this, I was being sarcastic.) Who needs a genius to tell them to only use "homeless dollars" to prevent homelessness for those who are in danger of becoming homeless? After all, countless advocates spend their valuable time just trying to keep GOVERNMENT from taking "homeless dollars" away from ineffective, government-run homeless programs. 'Why would the GOVERNMENT do that?" you ask. There are two basic reasons:

1 -- Neither ending nor preventing homelessness is a priority for our nation's governments.

2 -- The government is punishing an under-funded, misguided and consequently ineffective government-run program by taking away some or all of its funding in hopes of causing that program to do a better job. They're in effect, punishing the child for becoming like the parent (though governments are hardly under-funded and, if they are, it's only because THEY can't get a handle on unemployment -- i.e. create jobs and connect people to them). Their "hopes" never materialize into tangible results. I'll give you one guess as to why. Have you figured it out yet? Our governments haven't.

When you consider the fact that various states and cities as well as the federal government have Inter-agency Councils on Homelessness (ICH's), it might seem that a rather robust effort is being made to end homelessness. Here in Washington, DC the ICH is headed by the city administrator and consists of the heads of various government agencies (or their proxies) along with various homeless service providers and homeless or formerly homeless people. They convene every two months and meetings are open to the public. There are usually about 100 people in attendance. I am left to assume that other ICH's function in similar ways.

The DC ICH held it's first meeting in June 2006 (the 24th, if I'm not mistaken) at One Judiciary Square. I was there. Five months earlier, DC counted 6,157 homeless people. In January 2007 there were 5,757 homeless people in DC. That number has risen every year since then -- to 6,546 in 2011 (the latest year for which figures are available). I am left to assume that other ICH's have had similar results.

DC Government adopted its 10-year plan to end homelessness in December 2004 with the "intent"(?) of ending homelessness in the District by December 2014 (without just letting them all freeze to death, I'll assume). They've scrapped that plan at this point, though I don't think any of the suits or dresses who got paid nicely for devising a failed plan gave back any of the money they were paid for screwing up. I KNOW that other cities have had similar results.

In January 2008 DC had 6,044 homeless people. In September 2008 DC's Permanent Supportive Housing Program (PSH) became functional and has housed at least 1,500 formerly homeless people at this point. yet, in January 2011 DC had 6,546 homeless people (502 MORE than they had BEFORE PSH). The only way to house 1,500 people and end up with 500 more is for an additional 2,000 people to become homeless in the time that it took to house the 1,500.

Last year Washington, DC's 153-unit, apartment-style family shelter was full. There were 50 additional families who couldn't access shelter. They were put in hotels while DC Government's Dept. of Human Services (DHS) readied an additional 100 units. By the time the 100 units were ready, there were 200 families in hotels -- to the tune of approx. $100/day/family while the average rent for a 2-bedroom in the city is $1,600/month ($53/day). So, while the government made shelter space for 50 families, another 150 became homeless. And who's not slow?

Robert Hess was hired by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as New York City's director of Homeless Services. Homelessness increased on his watch, due largely to the economic downturn and Mr. Hess became a political scapegoat. Michael Kelly, the former director of the DC Housing Authority, in like manner, became a political scapegoat as he lost his job due to DCHA having a long waiting list for housing. While I don't know what Mr. Hess is doing these days, Mr. Kelly is now the director of New York City's housing authority. Maybe he's doing a better job in NYC than circumstances would allow him to do in DC. I've met both men and have nothing against either. However, I'm trying to imagine the conversation that landed the job for Mr. Kelly:

BOSS: Mr. Kelly, why do you deserve this job? What kind of credentials do you have?

MR. KELLY: I failed woefully in DC. We housed about 1,000 people per year and had a waiting list that went from 60,000 to 26,000 by being "purged". (People who didn't reapply were knocked off of the waiting list.) I, in essence, reduced the wait from 60 years to 26 years. That's why they got rid of me.

BOSS: You reduced the wait from 60 years to 26 years! We've never had any such luck in New York City! They call that a failure. You're an absolute success in my book. You're hired!

Now let's get back to the federal government for a minute -- or longer. President Obama signed the HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) on May 20th, 2009. It was then handed off to HUD to be implemented. Two and a half years later, in the fall of 2011, the HEARTH Act was partially implemented, as Congress under-funded HUD for FY 2012. While HUD is the victim this time, it is important to note that HUD's only mission in 1934 was to help people purchase homes; but, the department now devotes a large portion of its funding to maintaining rentals. They've spoken in recent years about purchasing condos for those who receive assistance, but I've yet to hear about any motion on that proposal. It would be a smart move to purchase houses or condos and stop paying rent (though that says nothing for condo fees or property taxes).

The HEARTH Act, when fully implemented, will require municipalities that receive HUD money to actually reduce homelessness. Bravo, HUD! Demand results. But DC Government recognizes about five different types of shelter of which the most popular is "low-barrier shelter". People who enter low-barrier shelter don't need I.D., may give a false name, may enter high or drunk and may be illegal immigrants (undocumented workers) or on the lam. Neither law enforcement nor Immigration will be called, so long as the person doesn't bring alcohol in with them or commit any new crimes while in the shelter. Shelter residents are not required to enter any type of program while in low-barrier shelter. I've told DC Government that, in order to comply with the demand to actually reduce homelessness, the "low-barrier" designation will eventually need to be revisited and possibly need to be done away with when the pertinent portion of the HEARTH Act is implemented. I don't think they heard me. I'll shout it next time. If they don't reduce homelessness, they won't get that pot of money the following year -- which they could then tout as the reason for their continued failure.

And, speaking of DC Government failures, I actually told them about their failures in December 2011. I swear I was nice. Really. I told them about how they now have 500 more homeless people than they did before PSH. I then said, "It's like having your water supply line spring a leak. You don't mop the floor first. You turn the water off and stop the flow. in like manner, you have to stop the flow into homelessness or you'll always be behind the ball". (I, who have never been to college but DID finish high school, said this before reading the 2005 report which I mentioned earlier.) Following the February 2012 ICH meeting, I noticed that people who are contracted under DC Government were shunning me. Now, why would they do that? I'll assume they don't like being called failures, though they don't seem to mind BEING failures. After all, it pays well and guarantees them job security. As long as they don't actually end homelessness, they'll keep getting paid by DC Government to end homelessness.

So, in April I'll offer them some free but invaluable advice:

1 -- Take a step back from what you do and consider what sensible, time-tested principles (like prevention) you haven't incorporated. Start incorporating them.

2 -- Consider what policies and practices are being incorporated by your higher-ups which hinder, prevent and reverse(?) your progress as well as the constraints which are put on you by them. Consider what things fall outside of your purview or mandate but which need to be done in order to end homelessness. Put all of this in your reports to your higher-ups. make it part of a problem statement which appears on the front of your report. let them know that THEY are the reasons for YOU being useless and ineffective. Ask for...err demand broader authority and greater resources. Tell them you'll quit if they don't enable you to succeed. Or do you enjoy the job security that comes with life-long failure?

3 -- Get a city administrator who actually cares about the issue, as Allen Lew is only at ICH meetings because it's the law. Neil Albert was a much better CA. If someone mentioned a problem at a shelter or homeless service, he would call the director of the responsible agency on the carpet immediately and the meeting wouldn't proceed until the matter was adequately addressed. Allen Lew does as little as possible during meetings -- and JUST STARTED doing that much.

I'll venture a guess that the government folk will utterly hate me after I offer the aforementioned good advice. Maybe they'll hate me enough to house me, in hopes of having me shut up and leave them to their own devices. I welcome the effort, though I won't tell you how that story would end. Want to guess the ending? Maybe I'll get swept up in a new policy of housing the "least vulnerable", connecting them to jobs, thus relieving the system of them altogether -- the policy which they've yet to consider, even though advocates have advised them to do so for the last couple of years. That's not to speak of the fact that it would free up tax dollars or that working people actually PAY taxes.

Well, I've humored you long enough with this diatribe on government dysfunction. If you aren't rolling in laughter right now, you're probably a government employee. If so, forward this to others in your government so that they can, get pissed off at me. I'm banking on them being utterly stupid. maybe they'll be stupid enough and get mad enough to say, "I'm so mad at Eric for exposing my failures that I'm going to start succeeding! I'll show him!" Wait -- that would actually be smart! One can only hope. But, as things stand presently, the government bodies of our nation aspire to become at least as useful and effective as that of a 1,000-pound quadriplegic who's both blind and deaf.


Ana said…
Hi Eric,

This post is great (so informative!) and your blog is all around excellent. I was wondering if you are willing to correspond via email or even in person over coffee about some of your knowledge about homelessness in DC. I'm a young writer and I'm currently trying to craft a short story about a homeless DC man, but although I have some limited experience with DC's soup kitchens, etc. I'm realizing that my narrative is falling short in many ways -- mostly due to lack of proper information.

Please let me know! I lived in DC for 7 years before moving to New York, but will coincidentally be in DC this weekend.


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