The Housing Crisis Alarm

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Part of the large encampment off Blackstock Avenue in the so-called “mission district” of Knoxville. Photo by Hard Knox Wire.

I have worked at Volunteer Ministry Center and Knox Area Rescue Ministries for the past twenty years within what is sometimes known as Knoxville’s “mission district.”

However, there has not been a single day that I worked with a homeless person.

Discussions and debates about homelessness can dominate local and national news reports, take over an election cycle, and collapse into moments of outrage and even name-calling.  A feeling of exasperation and resentment can quickly perk, emerging during any engagement on the subject.

To be clear, the experience of homelessness has a detrimental and life-threatening effect on the individual’s well-being.   We should be outraged by the suffering of another human being.  The impact on the human body and spirit is reason enough to be passionate about our responses. 

On the other hand, citizens can be annoyed by an apparent lack of progress on an issue that seems to drain both collective patience and community resources.

Why the conundrum?  Why are we seemingly paralyzed in our efforts?  Can’t we unite for the common cause of eliminating human suffering?   Do annoyance and exasperation have to be the first and the last word on the matter? 

Part of the problem is rooted in our semantics and therefore stymies our efforts and commitment to permanent solutions.   The use of such characterizations as “homeless people,” the “homeless,” and the “homeless problem” communicates quite well that we are entering a vortex of endless debate about a solution for a problem we refuse to define. 

The State Judiciary Committee has successfully resurrected a bill (SB-1610) from last year to expand the prohibition against “camping” or “sleeping” alongside a state or interstate to include local governmental lands. Explicitly, the bill targets the “homeless,” but the effect is to “criminalize” the experience of being “unhoused” and the state of poverty.  

The bill’s authors and endorsers fail to identify and address the real issue. They play the trump card of the mythical and collective narrative that people “reap what they sow.”  

Instead of trying to blame the person for being at fault for the experience of homelessness, let’s concentrate on the solution — housing.  

Matthew Desmond, noted for his work on eviction and poverty, identifies the present housing crisis as the problem that a bill like SB-1610 should address. Desmond suggests that there are no excuses for the lack of housing, noting “no moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”

Whereas SB-1610 declares the person responsible for “camping” on state or local property, Desmond identifies the “villain” in the homeless saga to be the lack of housing.

In this precise yet single statement, Desmond names the problem.  It is about housing, not “homeless people.” The pathology lies not with the “homeless,” but could it be our societal indifference or apathy? Again, it is not a “homeless” problem but a housing problem. 

Semantics matter, and that is why I say, “I have never worked with a homeless person.” This semantic is essential for me to stay focused on the solution.  The experience of homelessness does not define a person.  We are not the sum of a single incident.  Our personhood is much more than one-dimensional. 

The experience of homelessness can occur in many ways, just as there are many paths out of the experience.  However, the common denominator in any exit is always housing.  As written in Desmond’s book, Eviction, “home remains the primary basis of life.  It is where meals are shared, quiet habits formed, dreams confessed, traditions created.”

Without a safe, secure, stable, and permanent residence, meals become happenstance, crisis overcomes the habitual, nightmares dominate, and traditions forgo observation. We owe our health and well-being to the ideal of home and its reality. 

Without refute, research evidence from many studies — both national and international — demonstrates unequivocally that the Housing First social-service model approach ends homelessness.  Of course, it presupposes that housing is available.  The answer to the experience of homelessness requires a national, state, and local policy toward the development of housing that is affordable, accessible, and appropriate.  

The housing crisis is a red alarm. It has sounded far too long, as witnessed in stories of burgeoning encampments, endless cycles of “cleaning” up the encampments, the increase of those living in cars, and the growing number of evictions.  

No wonder we feel futile in our attempts because we become obsessed with the problem while ignoring the solutions – housing and the Housing First philosophy.   The evidence shows that Housing First ends homelessness for 75-95 percent of those with behavioral and medical concerns by providing immediate access to the housing and 24/7 support services, meeting their basic needs. This success depends solely on the availability of housing and related services. 

The alarm continues to sound, calling for an urgent and immediate response. The proverbial fire of the housing shortage has grown past glowing embers. The day and night of homelessness, however, illuminates not by raging flames licking the sky but fills the landscape of the community with sounds of pain, suffering, and hurt, falling silent against the paled efforts of a “camping” bill.

The problem is not about the people experiencing homelessness; it is about the lack of housing.   And the lack of housing is about people.  Let’s get our semantics right.  We would then at least acknowledge the alarm, but will our response be timely?

Bruce Spangler is the chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center, a nonprofit agency located in Knoxville. VMC’s mission is “to facilitate permanent supportive housing for those who are homeless and to provide services to prevent homelessness.” For more information, visit the agency’s website at https://www.vmcinc.org. 

Bruce Spangler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on April 19, 2022.