Hidden Homelessness Culprit: Agency (Twice)

After a year of delving into the community’s understanding and response to homelessness, one word could summarize a recurring theme: underinvestment. I’d like to explore two areas of overinvestment that make solutions harder to enact.

As it happens, both problems use the same word, though with very different meanings: “agency.”

Social service professionals aim to preserve and support their clients’ sense of personal agency. It goes by other names too: self-determination, autonomy, sovereignty, self-esteem. People must be allowed to make their own choices — to contribute to their own recovery.

Provide a bootstrap and many will pull themselves up by it. Provide that little bit of help, because God helps those who help themselves. We can’t force a person into a home, even if there was one available, unless we’re willing to lock the door after they enter.

It’s no wonder that jails have played such a significant role in our effort to get roofs over everyone’s heads. The brutal truth is that some people are so damaged or frail or afraid that they won’t stay in a home if it’s offered to them. A friend’s cousin endured amputation last month, after refusing to come in from the cold. He knew where he could be warm, but chose differently.

We all have to live with the consequences of bad choices we make, but a civil society sets limits to those choices. Railroads require fencing around overpasses so people won’t throw stuff or themselves on the tracks below.

We ticket jaywalkers because one bad choice could lead to an injury. But we’ve decided that frostbite is not to be considered an injury, or at least not one that might slow traffic. Cigarettes and alcohol are taxed and labeled to protect its users from excessive harm and children cannot buy them. But sleeping in a car or under a bush — in frigid cold — cannot be disallowed. We cannot violate somebody’s personal agency.

Our overinvestment in individuals’ agency sometimes has lethal consequences.

When and how did this happen to our society? Here’s one piece. In the late 1970s, the federal government began dismantling the institutional care model in favor of a decentralized approach — more expensive, but more humane. This shift was underway White House leadership shifted abruptly to Ronald Reagan. The “committed care” model was dismantled, but sufficient funding for its replacement did not follow.

Lost in that transition was any coherent way for the government to help those who cannot or will not help themselves. Many agencies, public and private, step into that breach and do heroic work on a daily basis.

Regular readers may recall a story I told several years ago about a neighbor of mine who was living in a home without power or water. He passed my house each day with a wheelbarrow to bring ice back from the store. A couple months after that story was published, my neighbor was relocated to subsidized housing with an on-site case manager. But stories like that are not common.

I have a godson with schizophrenia who traveled cross-country to visit me a few years ago. We searched for local housing options and we were told it would be months before he could apply and it may be years before an apartment could be made available. He was arrested elsewhere in Oregon less than a week later for obstructing traffic.

His family came to get him and he’s now settled into an apartment in Connecticut, but he had to wait years to get the help he needs.

If we continue to ask agencies to do more with less, eventually we’ll be asking them to do everything with nothing. When they push back, we object. If only they were more efficient, we wouldn’t be bothered anymore with this nettlesome problem.

But can you see what we did as a society? Warehousing the infirm in institutions was inhumane but efficient. Jails and bushes and emergency rooms remove the problem from our sight. We’re desperate to have others magically fix the problem. We want agencies to make the problem go away.

We believe agencies can fix it when we’ve refused. That’s an overinvestment.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.