Friday, January 30, 2015

Filling the Housing Gaps By Any Means Necessary

On December 1, 2014, flanked by Steve Carnes and prompted by Gordon Smith [from Camp Serenity], Caleb Poirier announced the homeless community’s intent to recall Stephen Kunselman from his Ward 3 City Council seat. Yes, it caught me off-guard too. Here is the text from his announcement culled from the LocalWiki site [which, by the way, is being operated by the CivCity Initiative which will only be able to continue this service if you donate to the cause].

...In the minutes there is a little bit of extra – I'm sorry "minutes" is the wrong word... if you go to that website, and you pull up the city council meeting that occurred [November 17] and move the slider bar which is at the bottom to the right to get to the moment two hours and 39 minutes, that's when Stephen Kunselman starts to talk about his desire to ask all of the services, to put all of the city services towards the eviction of the homeless in the wintertime.

Specifically at three hours, zero minutes and seven seconds, Kunselman states...he wishes to make things difficult for the homeless. He wants to make things more difficult and his opinion isn't one that is offhand. He prefaces it with the word "adamant" and he states that it would be something he wishes to do in the months going forward.

I would have a small phalanx of homeless people behind me, but they are busy relocating themselves and helping others relocate. But I can tell you that about 24 hours ago from this moment, I was with many of those folks who are getting relocated as well as friends of them, and they voted nearly unanimously – there was one abstention – to engage and spend our time this winter in the cold, canvassing for signatures to execute a recall of Council Member Kunselman. This year is uniquely suited towards that as it is a non-presidential year and less people voted in total, because of that. [speaking directly at Mr. Kunselman now] I hope that you are able to execute your policies while you can, because your time here is limited, and it will be the homeless that you wished to evict who will indeed evict you.[source]

[I’ll digress briefly here to note that Caleb never once mentions MISSION, nor has that organization ever endorsed his efforts. It is respectfully requested that the Ann Arbor Independent issue a correction retracting that mistake from the December 27, 2014 editorial “Evaluating Human Services.”]

The people who participated in this recall effort have not often had the opportunity to participate in our community discussions about policy and program efforts to remedy their situations. What a feeling to see people who are down on their luck, take off the shelf a political tool available to everyone and dust it off to improve their own lot.

To my surprise and that of my peers on the MISSION board who voted not to participate in the recall for obvious legal reasons, the tactic worked. Homeless individuals acting as their own direction-setting democratic body have been able to push back on Council Members Kunselman and Eaton in their zeal to break up all camps in the city*.

It is now well documented that Washtenaw County and especially Ann Arbor do not have enough permanent residences that are affordable for all who live among us. Until we build those homes, we will continue to encounter people who need help getting back on their feet and into bricks-and-mortar housing. It should be an obvious and forgone conclusion that until then, people will camp.

I am an organizer and a housing rights activist. I obtained my Masters in Social Work from the University of Michigan and have been a lecturer there as well as at Eastern Michigan University. In my current position with HARC, I am a medical case manager working with people who live with HIV. We use a harm reduction approach when engaging our clients.

Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. The idea of harm reduction has subsequently been expanded to refer to any strategy that acknowledges that, while a set of unhealthy actions may need to be ceased entirely, sometimes the only accessible behavior modification for those with entrenched habits is one that reduces the harm of the ongoing intractable habit. This does not do away with the push for a complete reformation. Instead, it keeps the individual alive while a relationship can be established to assist in that final transition away from self harm.

I apply these principles to the challenge of helping people who are living outside and when working with people who are camping. It is not a stretch to state that PORT [The County “Project OutReach Team] does the same thing when they pass out tents and sleeping bags through the winter.  PORT and MISSION often exchange information about whose medical or shelter needs are not being met in order to make sure people get the resources they need.

Rather than telling or forcing someone who is struggling to fit our idea of what is safe when they are not yet ready to hear it, a professional outreach social worker’s time is often better spent working to reduce the potential harm that can happen to individuals who are living outside at any time of the year. This includes disbursing warm clothing, camping gear, heaters, propane, food, and water. It can also include visiting people living in smaller group camps to help them organize themselves, look out for each other and survive. It can also include helping someone make a case for disability because they are no longer able to work and will never get into housing otherwise.

Given the positions proffered by Council Members Kunselman and Eaton, I do not think we will ever see eye-to-eye on this issue. Nor will everyone in our community, whom they represent, necessarily appreciate the well researched but counter-intuitive medical intervention of harm reduction. However, this does not mean we cannot strive to find other areas of common ground. One such area is to make sure everyone has a safe, warm space they can sleep every night. I look forward to working on these overlapping concerns as we move forward with affordable housing projects such as Accessory Dwelling Units, Tiny Houses among the many other ways that we can help those living outside improve their quality of life.


* “‘It is not the practice of the city of Ann Arbor to proactively seek out homeless camps for removal, nor to broadly deploy strategies to render areas used as campsites unusable,’ the resolution states.” --- From Jan. 21, 2015 Mlive article by Ryan Stanton, “Ann Arbor officials: city can't turn a blind eye to homeless camps when there are complaints”