I spend a lot of time in airports, airplanes, hotel lobbies and restaurants alone where I tend to eat at the bar. One of the inevitable questions in these types of environments is “What do you do for a living?”
Sometimes I use the bland “I’m a consultant.” But I have learned that begs more questions about what type of consultant I might possibly be.
Sometimes I say that I teach at York. Like saying “I’m a consultant” this usually leads to questions about what I teach.
See, for a long time I have been avoiding telling people that I work on homelessness, housing and social policy issues. It’s one of those subject matters where lots of people have opinions. I am cool with that. But what I am not cool with is that we seem to have gotten to a place in our society where having a big heart is seen as sufficient qualification for working on homelessness issues. Ending homelessness is hard work that requires specialized skills.
I have nothing against charities. Charities play an important role in meeting immediate needs. Think of a major disaster – hurricane, tornado, flood, earthquake, wild fire. We need charitable responses to provide food, clothing and shelter for a short period of time in each of these unfortunate situations until other responses can take over. Charitable responses are not designed to be long term. And here is a kicker for some – charity has never solved a social problem.
One of the most influential books in the way that I think about homelessness, housing and social policy is called “Poverty’s Bonds” by Patrick Burman. Through his work I like to think of five different levels in responding to these types of issues.
Charity is the bottom rung of the ladder. It does not solve the problem. And yet it is the most pervasive.
Bureaucratic Responding is next up. This examines the hoops that we make people jump through to get their needs met. This isn’t just government. Bureaucratic tendencies are pervasive in most homeless and housing service systems. At its core is a question of eligibility. But this isn’t just about trying to find the right service response. Think of the poor soul who is only eligible for a meal or a bed if they agree to pray to a deity that they may not believe in.
Needs Assessment holds the middle space. I think this is the bare minimum that any service system should aim to hit. I think it is incumbent upon us to ask people what their needs are and try to design services and systems to meet those needs as efficiently and effectively as possible. It is foolish and absurd – not to mention condescending – to think that providers of programs and policy wonks have the answers without talking to the people they are paid to serve.
Community Development is the rung one step removed from the top. Think of this in the true sense of Community Development, not the watered down version offered too often as an illusory olive branch that pretends to involve people in shaping their own community. This is strength based and adaptive. It meets people where they are at and builds capacity based upon their defined community needs.
And then there is Advocacy – the top of the pyramid. This is self-advocacy. It reflects self-determination. There is a heightened sense of awareness that comes with reaching this level, and a respect of the position of personal enlightenment that a person knows not just want they want, but has the fortitude and resolve to advance their agenda independent of outside forces.
But I don’t think we are ready as a society to really embrace these five steps and the consequences of each – especially Needs Assessment and above – as the dominant paradigm for how services should be provided and systems designed. I think the learning and re-profiling that needs to go into escaping a charity model or an approach loaded with cumbersome, unnecessary bureaucracy is too scary for many. We can get there, but it is often one organization and community at a time.
In the meantime when I am really drained or on the precipice of burnout, I admit that I am selfish sometimes and tell a little lie when people ask me what I do for a living. I tell them that I am in the pet insurance business – mainly discharged small lab rodents. It’s a quantity business I tell them. I’d rather hear the opinions of a stranger about the pet insurance business than hear another story of how they volunteer to feed “the homeless” (rather than “homeless people”) by doling out soup and sandwiches or volunteering at their church’s mat program. Or hear their theories about mental illness or addictions or family breakdown or abuse. I don’t want to hear another rant about helping people pull themselves up by their boot straps which is pretty friggin’ hard to do when you don’t even have boots. And I sure as heck don’t want to hear another story about the dude they see on their way to work every single day who panhandles from them. Twice in my life when I have told the truth of what I do for a living on a plane I have had complete strangers grab my hand to engage me in prayer, which freaked me out. I only use this lie when I am at my most tired, but pushing the rock up hill constantly it seems to get people to realized that we need professional responses if we want to end homelessness really wears me out sometimes.