Perpetuating Homelessness Is A Political Choice

I’ve been sort of prodded to weigh in on the end of Sleep Out RI, which claimed victory shortly after Governor McKee announced on Thursday that the $5 million dollars allocated towards 275 emergency shelter beds on November 3 would include an additional 130 emergency shelter beds (I’m not sure if this means that’s 405 emergency shelter beds funded in total, or if this 130 is part of the original 275 announced at the start of November or if it’s in addition to the 220 beds mentioned by the Governor, but that fuzziness is pretty par for the course for the coverage of these things).

Let me start off by saying that if you’re looking (or bracing) for a post calling out the Brown-Mendes campaign for glomming onto this issue that supports claims by Senate leadership that the Sleep Out was “cheap political theatrics” this is not going to be that post. As I stated at the start of the month, Sleep Out was good, regardless of how you feel about the political figures who engaged in it. If you’re worried that this has politicized the issue of homelessness, I want you to stop worrying.

Because it should be politicized! Ending homelessness is not going to be sunk because some progressive politicians decide to camp out in front of the State House. It’s going to be sunk because the state’s leading policymakers view ending homelessness as an issue without a constituency, as an issue that is handled by charitable organizations and only needs minimal state support. Politicians taking up the cause of homelessness and demanding the State take it seriously as a policy priority is good.

Also good is politicians putting their bodies on the line and taking direct action for those who are homeless. I think a lot of longtime advocates found this quite fortifying. A political campaign not only taking up the cause of homelessness, but actually arriving in force (with a number of candidates) to demonstrate for a sustained period on the behalf of those who are unsheltered is absolutely unheard of. The closest event I can think of is the brief encampment organized by (what was then) the RI Coalition for the Homeless and Occupy Providence a decade ago (full disclosure: I was a volunteer with the Coalition during that event).

But in terms of who’s responsible for the additional beds, it worth remembering what The Public’s Radio Ian Donnis points out: “victory has many fathers.” So how do we evaluate whose victory this was?

Who Did This?

I’m just going to focus on Sleep Out RI’s claim of victory here, because I don’t think this really was a victory for the McKee-Matos Administration. Sleep Out had victory conditions, the Administration doesn’t really. It’s just an announcement they made, a thing they did because they’re the government and they should be doing it. Sleep Out set out goals for themselves, so it can be evaluated.

One thing to remember is that this is the charitable season, and news media tends to focus on stories about the homeless and those in need in this season. I’ve worked in these fields and observed the media for a decade now, and it’s quite cyclical: as the weather gets colder, news starts to cover the impact of poverty; then as we move towards Thanksgiving, there’s pretty intense scrutiny of it, politicians tend to want to show how good they are so they do drives and show up at soup kitchens and hand out turkeys; and then come January the legislative session starts, the RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty holds its vigil, and all the poverty-related coverage gets subsumed into legislative wrangling as everyone starts pushing for a piece of the budget. So Sleep Out RI was well-timed for this (and props to them for the timing, whether it was intentional or not).

However, there are a few flaws with Sleep Out’s claim of a policy victory here. First is that, as best I can remember, it’s fairly standard to allocate resources to emergency shelter beds this time of year if not much earlier; the shelter system’s capacity always has to expand each winter as people come indoors due to the changing weather. That this is a predictable issue in the system (which the State unfortunately always has to be coaxed into doing) is absolutely a problem that needs fixing, as Governor McKee seemed to acknowledge in comments to Uprise RI: “It’s a helter-skelter approach for sure as we patch things together and that’s why I think we need to be working on a plan so that we’re not repeating this scramble every year.” It’s very possible we will be in this exact same place come next winter, and we’ll see if there’s similar mobilization following an election campaign (certainly, the advocates will still be there).

Second, I do think there’s a bit of a gap in the rhetoric that was being issued as Sleep Out RI started, and what they ultimately decamped for. Mendes seemed (to me) to suggest American Rescue Plan dollars should be used for this, as she told Uprise on the first night:

“I shouldn’t have to do this at all,” said Senator Mendes. “But when we’re sure that the homelessness crisis has been resolved and no one is going to freeze to death, the protest will end.”

“They’re not interested in acting,” she said. “State leadership feels entitled to ignore the fact that people in their state are going to die this winter. And they are sitting on a billion dollars, and sitting on the authority and power to address it.”

That there isn’t actually new spending from what was announced on November 3 and that the number of beds seems to be short from what’s needed seems to undercut the decision to declare victory. On November 4, the Associated Press reported that there were 575 people over the previous 30 days who had lived in a place not meant to be used as housing in RI’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). That was almost certainly a slight undercount, because to show up in HMIS, you have to come into contact with the shelter system in some manner, which some people may not do (for various reasons). On November 30, Uprise put up a similar statistic as “tonight, over 600 Rhode Islanders” will be without shelter. It doesn’t appear that the $5 million McKee announced on November 3 or the additional beds he said that same money had secured six weeks later is greater than the number of people who are likely to experience homelessness over the winter, (Providence College professor and HMIS Steering Committee Chair Eric Hirsch noted the November 3 spending’s failure to address the totality of the immediate crisis earlier in November and the RI Coalition to End Homelessness’ HMIS Program Manager Jennifer Barrera seemed to acknowledge as much on Thursday). Plus, people may be more hesitant to go into shelters this year due to the rise in the Omicron variant of COVID.

So I’m not certain Sleep Out RI met that initial goal of being sure that no one will freeze to death (and the homelessness crisis will continue to persist), and I admit to being a little shocked they decamped, because it feels like a very small win for a group known to seek big policy changes (and to criticize others for taking smaller, achievable wins). I do think there’s strategic and tactical sense in decamping, though. It’s very clear that though they’re framing it as a victory, they also know there’s a lot more to be done, as reported in the Globe:

Mendes, an East Providence Democrat, said she plans to introduce legislation “for Rhode Island to join Massachusetts as a ‘right to shelter’ state,” and she will push for an immediate eviction moratorium. The shelter beds have not solved the systemic issues that lead to homelessness, she said, calling for more affordable housing, a “living wage,” and “universal health care.”

But evaluating victory here as a policy outcome may be a bit of a fool’s errand.

The Conversation Has Changed

Regardless of where you stand on this, that Sleep Out RI was a waste of time or that it pushed authorities into further action than what they would’ve done, what matters is that resources were delivered. Overall, getting political credit isn’t really that important, it’s important that people not sleep outside.

I think you can see that it doesn’t really matter who claims victory by where advocates have been. RICEH, House of Hope, Amos House and others were with Governor McKee on Thursday as he announced the additional 130 emergency shelter beds. The Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project attributed the victory to Sleep Out RI. House of Hope was one of a number of beneficiaries of the supplies from Sleep Out. Sometimes you have to take your allies where you can get them, and it’s great when everyone wants to try and help you (even if it’s for political reasons).

And I just want to reiterate this, that the Co-op and the Brown-Mendes campaign have aligned themselves with the cause of ending homelessness and made it a political plank of their platform is really good. There are a number of progressives (some still in office) who have definitely achieved more in terms providing support to those experiencing homelessness. But as best I can remember, no one has really made it such an important political issue before – certainly not in such a broad and explicit and sustained electoral manner. The Co-op did elevate this issue in the political agenda. I don’t want to fault other progressives for not being more vocal on this issue, but it’s not like this has ever been an agenda-topping issue, despite ending homelessness being an achievable goal (Rhode Island has actually developed multiple plans to do it).

To be extra fair, I do want to acknowledge that Rhode Island is beset by a lot of crises right now, so I don’t fault progressives and politicians who are working on other important issues like COVID or education or police violence or overdose prevention or the near collapse of our health and human services systems. There is so much. Unfortunately, homelessness often takes a back seat to these problems. And the result is that this has really been a battle between the more moderate Democratic leaders and the Outdoor Progressives under the aegis of the Co-op.

We have homelessness not because it is some sort of natural condition, but because it is a policy choice. I want to make that clear. It’s entirely within the State of Rhode Island’s ability to effectively end homelessness, to make occurrences of homelessness exceedingly brief and rare, to eliminate the need for hundreds of shelter beds each winter, and to basically end shelters as we know them. As a country, we have effectively ended it before. As a state, we know the steps we have to take to end it here. It’s a policy choice to have homelessness, and policymakers make that choice because there is no powerful political constituency that says they should the make the right choice, the moral choice, and end it.

Making Rhode Island’s leading policymakers defensive about their decision, which is to continue to allow people to fall into and experience homelessness, is good. They should have to defend that choice. It’s the wrong choice to make and they should feel bad about making it. They do it every year. The media does not call them out on this. WPRI and WJAR do not ask the Speaker “why did you allow people to go homeless this year?” The Journal and the Globe do not include it in their coverage of political mistakes or unanswered questions at the end of the session. Even good coverage of homelessness doesn’t frame it as a failure of government in the way media coverage has framed issues like UHIP or deaths in foster care as failures of government.

Until someone came along to make it a political issue, it wasn’t going to be one. There is no political arm of the movement to end homelessness, the organizations addressing the issue are almost all 501(c)(3)s and can’t act in electoral politics. If the Co-op and Brown-Mendes win their races in September, then they’ll have to try to meet the promises they’ve made this winter, which is great. If other politicians have to respond and make their own promises around homelessness and get elected, great, we can hold them to account to those promises too.

What matters now is what happens next. Because what typically happens is that the emergency shelter beds happen, politicians pat themselves on the back, then the emergency beds go away in the spring, advocates struggle to get additional support in the budget, then summer happens, and then when autumn comes it’s a scramble to get those emergency shelter beds back. If the Governor is serious about ending this cycle, then his budget needs to reflect that, and media needs to hold him to the promise he made on Thursday (at the very least).

And in the coming year, the issue of homelessness still has to be on voters’ minds come June, come September, and come November. That’s a harder lift in an election season, especially because when voters think about it, it’s often in the very negative and counterproductive “why can’t the police arrest all these homeless people” manner. Ending homelessness needs to be an issue in debates, on campaign lit, and as an issue voters bring up on doors. Hopefully, the events of the last few weeks will keep it an open political question over the course of 2022. I don’t think this would be in the realm of possible without Sleep Out occurring, and I think that’s as worthy reason as any for them to claim victory.

Sadly, thousands of people are still going to experience homelessness in Rhode Island in 2022. It’s almost a statistical certainty that a number will die on the streets. This will be a moral failure of the State of Rhode Island, one that our leaders consciously made with full knowledge of the consequences. They have been told for years what the results of inaction will bring. There’s a lot to criticize about the Co-op and their approach to politics. There’s a lot, lot more to criticize about the actual decisionmakers in state government.

One comment

  1. Great analysis . We need your voice Sam . For me , I stand behind anybody who is doing the work ,or having the courage to use their voice to speak truth to power or leading in the right direction . I also think we need to acknowledge the good things that our elected officials have done . There has been growth . We are making progress .

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