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Eliminating homelessness depends on all of us

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(Editor's note: Due to technical difficulties we were unable to record audio for Jack's segment today. No worries, you'll be able to hear him again tomorrow.)

A few weeks ago I was asked about a pledge three Michigan counties and the city of Detroit had made to completely end all veteran and chronic homelessness by the end of next year.

I was, frankly, skeptical. There are far too many homeless in this country. From talking to members of Detroit’s Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, I know that veteran homelessness is a major problem. But I think sometimes setting impossible goals can backfire.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, for example, is today often regarded as a failure, and used by politicians as an example of why trying to help the poor is a waste of money.

In fact, the War on Poverty achieved huge successes, and dramatically lowered the national poverty rate, despite being cut short by the tragedy of Vietnam. But public perceptions were hurt, I believe, by the exaggerated claims made for it. So when I heard that people were pledging to end all homelessness, I raised an intellectual eyebrow.

Since then, I’ve talked to Andrea Plevek, human services manager for Washtenaw County. She is confident the county will meet its goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of this year, and chronic homelessness by the end of 2016. Now that doesn’t mean people won’t become homeless after that. Plevek told me their actual goal was to reach something she called “functional zero,” which means that homelessness will become “brief, rare and non-recurring,” among those two population groups.

The secret to success, she said, was to create a system not dependent on any one person or program, but which would work to automatically “provide people experiencing homelessness choice in their housing options.” She says “homelessness is not a choice people make when given access to truly affordable housing, plus “the appropriate level of supportive services.” Washtenaw is making a team effort to try and do just that.

Plevek has data indicating they are on course to succeed. But Washtenaw County is anything but typical of Michigan as a whole. The population tends to be far better educated than average, more affluent, and politically progressive.

Oakland County is much the same. But ending chronic homelessness in Detroit and Flint – Wayne and Genesee Counties – is proving much more difficult. I frankly don’t see chronic homelessness being ended in Detroit in my lifetime, unless we are willing to force people into something like barracks.

The problem there is huge. And from talking to homeless people and those who run shelters, I have to say I disagree with Plevek; there are a few who do want to live that way. Now most homeless don’t. And even if we can’t entirely eliminate the problem, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to try as hard as we can to do so.

And it is absolutely true, as she told Michigan Radio’s Tracy Samilton, that once people have stable housing, it is easier for them to deal with their other problems.

Andrea Plevek and her colleagues are making a major effort here. But in the final analysis, long-term success depends on all of us. Are we content to be a society that can complacently look the other way when some fellow citizens are living under freeway overpasses? Unless the answer is no, there’s only so much anyone can do.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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