Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lens on Salem Weekly

With two weeks to go before the first meeting of the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative Task Force, Salem Weekly ran this feature (the same misspelling occurs in the inside cover title and the online edition's url).
A homless resident of CANDO

The piece has five subsections: "Housing First", "Salem agencies support the philosophy", "PNW Innovates", "Salem's affordable housing options inadequate", "Salem people who might be helped, those who won't."

We'll start by discussing the good bits.  First, it's good to see any local media attempting to inform on such issues; stories about poverty tend not to generate a lot of ad revenue.  Which may be why, aside from the "homeless resource guide" published in September, Salem Weekly's not run an article about homelessness since 2009.  Second, the print edition has a really nice photo of Audrey Schackel. 

Audrey Schackel upper right corner

Unfortunately, however, the article is not very informative.  It might even be mis-informative. 

"Can Salem build a home for its hom[e]less?", the article asks, at the same time making clear through the accompanying (cover) photo that by "homeless" is meant middle-aged alcoholic males living on the street, precisely the demographic that so bothers downtown businesses, and, in its day, bothered the Bush Administration.  

It was, then, no surprise to the see the article lead with "Housing First", a paradigm, model or "philosophy" as the article refers to it, that the Bush Administration pushed hard as a panacea for ending homelessness, or, some would say, for getting those unpleasant remnants of prosperous society off the streets.

But wait, we thought, isn't Salem Weekly is considered an alternative newspaper?  Edgy, with a "progressive" if not iconoclastic editorial bent?  Certainly, the article was making Housing First sound like something new and edgy. 

In fact, Housing First has been around since 1988.  As noted above, it was pushed hard by the Bush Administration (and continues to be pushed by HUD) as a way to keep the chronically homeless out of emergency rooms and jails (aka "crisis services and institutions"), a deliberate choice that has not been without consequences for other homeless demographic groups, as some have tried to point out.  See, e.g., here, here and here.  And, if you're really interested, see here.

But a reader would not know any of this from the article.  Take that four-year study it cites.  The one "conducted by the Chicago Housing for Health Partnership" that "showed that moving homeless people into permanent housing quickly improved their lives and saved taxpayer money"?  That study was limited to homeless persons with chronic medical problems.  (BTW, the study was conducted by a coalition of hospitals and housing groups, not CHHP.  CHHP was the name of the study.  Also, the study was published in eight years ago, a fact the article omits.)  

Let's be clear, Housing First is a "low-barrier, supportive housing model that emphasizes permanent supportive housing" for individuals.  Unless a person has a disabling condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, recurrent major depression, PTSD or addictive disorders, that person does not need supportive housing or the type of Housing First program that studies have shown to work.  What is the reader to think, then, when told that SIHN "follows a Housing First model" for families?  We really have no idea.   

Before Housing First, and where Housing First is not appropriate, providers  intervene(d) through the Continuum of Care using a "stairstep" approach to "housing readiness", e.g., getting clean and sober, dealing with criminal history, securing income, etc.  Many, if not most, programs like SIHN that claim for whatever reason to be Housing First programs in fact have stairstep aspects.  What is not known is how well such programs work. 

And, the article does not attempt to find out.  It describes the area's <2% vacancy rate, the long voucher waiting list and how vouchers are being returned unused.  But, even after telling the reader that SIHN "finds permanent housing for 91% of its guests", it makes no attempt explain how they managed to do that in the current market.  Wouldn't most readers like to know what makes the IHN/Family Promise model - which also dates to 1988 - so successful?  It's not, as the article suggests, because of Housing First.

Nor is Housing First responsible for Dignity, Opportunity or Emerald Villages, as their histories and origins make readily apparent.  So why are they featured in the article?  Again, no idea.  Salem is not Eugene or Portland.  We've said it before, but it bears repeating: there is a reason Jack Tafari left Salem and moved to Portland. 

Let's be clear.  Dignity, Opportunity or Emerald Villages are the result of grassroots organizing by or with the people directly affected.  To this day, and notwithstanding the article's references to the Salem Homeless Coalition (described as "a group of community people"), the First Congregational Church's Homeless Task Force, and certain individuals as "homeless advocates", Salem has no effective housing or homeless advocacy group and no advocacy organization within the homeless community.  Unless and until that changes, which is highly unlikely, Salem is not going to "innovate" the way Eugene and Portland have.  That's neither a good thing, nor a bad thing, it's just the way things are here at this point in time.  
The article closes with this poignant rationalization, 

[S]ome [homeless people] will never want to be sheltered because of medical and personality qualities, an inability to comply with guidelines, and the requirement of some programs that participants be substance-abuse free and have no criminal record.  

People who "will never want to be sheltered" because of a "medical quality" or "program requirements."  That's exactly who benefits from Housing First. 

The article had good intentions but was short on research and skepticism.  As a consequence, it failed to inform, and likely confused the issues for a lot of folks, as well as perpetuating one or two myths about homelessness.  We give it a journalistic -2 on the MOHA Scale.


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