Sunday, January 10, 2016

Poverty and Homelessness in the Collaboration Capital

Some of Salem's Social Service Providers

Introduction: Like most cities, Salem is home to conflicting views of poverty/homelessness and what can/should be done about it.  If they think about it at all, most view it as a problem.  A few take a sort of libertarian view that poverty and homelessness are choices -- people who don’t like how they’re living should make better decisions.  Some, maybe many, believe poverty/homelessness is primarily the responsibility of “charities” (not government).  Others see it as a social/political/economic policy problem that working-class citizens cannot possibly hope to influence for the better.  Still others focus on immediate needs and providing volunteer or professional services that fill those needs.  

Whatever our view, we can agree on one thing, which is that we do better when we have a shared, comprehensive approach to problems in our community.  For that we need shared knowledge; and, most likely, rich or poor, we need to educate ourselves, starting with what's going on in this community and in communities like ours, to address the problems of poverty and homelessness.  

If you haven't read our blog "CANDO's 'Homeless Issues'" and studied the linked information, that is  the best place to begin.  However, that blog's focus is on current events.  Although it touches on existing programs and services in passing, it doesn't describe Salem's current homeless services delivery system in any kind of detail.  We want to begin doing that now.     

Disclaimer: The information offered in this and subsequent blogs on this subject is based on information available and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom.  Comments and corrections are welcome.

Poverty in Salem: The federal poverty level for a 2-person household is $15,930.  In 2012, over 25% of all Salem (MSA or metropolitan statistical area) households earned less than $25,000 annually.  That figure is unlikely to have changed since then for the better.  Fifty-four percent of Salem renters are “housing burdened”, meaning they pay 30% or more of their income toward rent.  To keep housing costs within 30% of income, a household in Salem has to earn almost $13/hr.  Thus, a one-parent, one-child household earning minimum wage would spend over 50% of income on rent and basic utilities in Salem.  Such housing burdened families are but one serious illness, accident, misfortune or misjudgment away from homelessness. 

Demographics: This discussion is meant to be general, but the reader should understand, and it cannot be over-emphasized, that many poverty programs are intended to serve particular demographics (e.g., youth, domestic violence/human trafficking/stalking victims, veterans, elderly, disabled, reentering felons, people with HIV/AIDS, people with addictions, people with mental health conditions, people with disabling literacy or language limitations, chronically homeless people and recently unemployed/homeless people).  The unavoidable result is segregation and duplication of facilities and services. This not only makes collaboration in delivering services a challenge, it also makes it difficult (but not impossible) to determine how well the system is working overall.  

The Lee Mission

Service Delivery Culture: In keeping with its Methodist missionary history, Salem’s poverty programs, like much else in Salem, are largely parochial.  That is, they are “of, relating to, or supported by” Christian religious institutions and their members.  While this parochial aspect must be subsumed when a program also receives financial support from the city, state or federal government, it often remains evident in program names and locations (e.g. Congregations Helping People, St. Francis Shelter, Salem Interfaith Hospitality Network, which have all received government funding).  This, and the relative success of responses like the 2003 “Churches as Neighborhood (CaN) Center initiative, have tended to reinforce the perception of many that Christian charity is the answer to the problems of poverty.  Thus, the view of many in Salem is that poverty/homelessness is not primarily the responsibility of government, but "charities."  For that and other reasons, residents have over the years made few demands of their civic officials to do more than they do in the normal course of things, and civic officials have responded accordingly.  See here.

Everyone, but everyone, agrees collaboration is key, to government, business, and non-profit success, however that term is defined.  Salem’s official reports to HUD repeatedly assert that the City and its service providers collaborate to fill gaps in services and avoid duplication.  Those reports do not, however, give examples of collaborative efforts, or describe their results, and not everyone would agree such efforts exist.  To the contrary, some say that Salem’s service providers are not particularly good at collaborating; that they have long been more or less content to remain in their service silos, hoarding information, donors, and even resources, whether out of habit or complacence, or for fear of losing what few resources they have to a competitor.  And there is no one pushing them to behave otherwise.

Understanding how well the system is working is thus not easy.  The City's oversight and analysis has never gone beyond ensuring that HUD's data-gathering and reporting requirements were met (which is not to say meeting those requirements is easy), though some have tried.  Outsiders (meaning those outside government  and social services) seeking to have more than a casual conversation about gaps in or duplication of services must be prepared to contend with program jargon and “grant speak”, in addition to the institutional jealousies discussed above.  Questions about how things are "really" going are often met with suspicion, or considered rude, probably because such questions are so rare.  

If the above characterization runs counter to Salem’s “collaboration capital” image, it can be proved nevertheless by patient study of readily accessible material and conversations with knowledgeable insiders who aren’t afraid to say what is so.  Does this culture mean Salem's homeless service delivery system has failed?  Yes and no.  No, in that service delivery does occur, and people are helped who probably would not be otherwise.  Yes, in that it could be so much better. 

Next: Areas of Permanent Immediate Need

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