Turning The Titanic Around

One of the roles that fire departments play is they try to EDUCATE people about fire PREVENTION.

Most fire departments are a public service. They get paid the same whether they sit in the firehouse playing cards, watching movies and trying to perfect their favorite recipes or doing the dangerous, dirty work of putting out fires.

They do not get paid MORE if there are MORE fires.

I have heard that there are SOME firefighters who are actually arsonists who became firefighters because of their fascination with fire, but the job itself is not INHERENTLY one that rewards people for fighting MORE fires. Kind of like soldiers NOT wanting their country to go to war, firefighters typically do NOT want MORE fires in their community.

In contrast, homeless services tend to follow The Shirky Principle and keep alive the problem of homelessness and this is in part because -- unlike closeted arsonist firefighters -- people who work for homeless services do not feel compelled to HIDE their GLEE at "helping the homeless." They have this delusion that it's a VIRTUE to be all Big Feels about helping the homeless.


Early on in my efforts to "get involved" in community development work in Aberdeen, Washington, I was going around to various places to give them copies of various flyers I had made and see who bit and what worked and yadda. I went one place and he took my stack of flyers and then gleefully went "So YOU have a HEART for the homeless..." and began nattering on about his grand plans to turn the ENTIRE downtown area into endless homeless services.

The guy actually in charge of the program was not there. This guy was some gumby, thus not likely to actually do any such thing. So I was like "MY! Look at the TIME. I'm late for a MEETING." and left.

Homelessness is the social equivalent of fire. Imagine if he had been a firefighter going "It's been a VERY good year for fire fighting. Half our downtown burned down and I got paid to put those fires out. My wallet is fat, baby!"

People who are homeless are people whose lives have been burned to the ground for some reason. You being all thrilled to pieces to feed them a free meal (etc) like that makes you a GOOD person is you being a selfish jackass who wants a Big Feels moment at their expense.

It is NOT you ACTUALLY caring about them. If you ACTUALLY cared about people, you would be building a world that tossed fewer people out into the street to begin with.

As mentioned previously on this site, I spent two years developing my Sample Site for downtown Aberdeen because I had applied for a community development job, did not get it but was being told I might have another shot at it. Aberdeen has a BIG homeless problem, so big that when I ran the numbers not long after moving here, on a per capita basis it was MUCH WORSE than data you see for big cities that are constantly in the news for their homeless issue, like San Diego, San Francisco or Seattle.

Eclogiselle was born of my fantasies that I would get the job and my realization that you can't solve the homeless problem negatively impacting downtown Aberdeen by limiting yourself to downtown development work. So I had fantasies I would get the job and do that Monday through Friday and in my "spare" time I would work on regional stuff to address this issue because it's the ONLY hope of fixing it.

Why, YES, I did know that was probably a ridiculous fantasy. I did realize that if I got the job, it would likely eat all my waking hours and, no, I would not have time and energy for a sideline of playing consultant to address regional planning issues that end up hitting downtown Aberdeen especially hard.

But that's where this site really began, with me wondering what would help other communities in this area in a way that would start to reduce the burden on Aberdeen. If California -- with roughly 12 percent of the US population, 27 percent of the US homeless population and over 50 percent of the nation's unsheltered homeless (2019 figures) -- is the dumping ground for the nation's homeless problem then Aberdeen is that for this region.

Although I find a lot of the emotional stuff around "helping the homeless" galling, one of the reasons it's a hard problem to solve is because the OBVIOUS answer -- helping the homeless -- is inherently a case of perverse incentives. In other words, if you HELP people BECAUSE they are homeless, you REWARD them for BEING homeless and it tends to keep the problem entrenched.
A perverse incentive is an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result that is contrary to the intentions of its designers
Earlier today I posted on a long-neglected site of mine called Street Life Solutions. This piece about shopping carts is probably going to be the first of some number of posts there trying to propose meaningful solutions that can actually be implemented by small communities with limited resources instead of putting out the fire with gasoline or standing there and watching it burn while feeling completely helpless.

I've studied this space and ideally we rebuild the world such that relatively few people land in the street to begin with and such that barriers between the housed and unhoused are less of a steep cliff for the unhoused who wish to get back into housing. But even if you do that, we currently have people on the street and we need effective policies for the here and now, not pie in the sky promises that "SOMEDAY there will be enough affordable housing and etc -- But NOT today and too bad so sad that I am not telling you how to get there from here."

Developing enough affordable housing to resolve the nation's homeless problem is not going to happen overnight, nor even by, say, the end of 2023 and that's what it will take for West Coast communities like Aberdeen to stop drowning in homeless people.

But you CAN put together an informational flyer TODAY -- or at least start working on it today -- and your local police department's Chief of Police CAN decide to follow the laws currently on the books that make theft illegal and change the policy of turning a blind eye to shopping cart theft by homeless people. Because that's a policy, not a law, so he has the power to just tell his people "We are no longer going to pretend we don't realize those carts are stolen property."

And you can fairly quickly talk to local emergency shelters in the area to ask them to be open for ANY storm, not just when it's below freezing at night, and you can spend a week or a few weeks -- whatever makes sense to you -- trying to notify the homeless population that this crackdown is coming and you can do something effective pretty immediately and do so in a humane and legally defensible fashion.

This problem is so entrenched that it's very much a people problem at this point and if you waved a magic wand and -- voila! -- we suddenly had adequate housing, most likely it wouldn't be homeless people moving into it. The worst behaviors of homeless people need to be dealt with in the present WHILE we come up with housing solutions or it won't fix anything.

I've read articles about homeless people who did things like burned their free apartment to the ground fairly promptly when given an apartment without supervision. People problems don't get solved by THINGS alone and affordable housing is a THING.

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