Friday, November 23, 2012

$3 Billion dollars later homeless youth on the rise

I often heard his name and gathered reports of his parking lot appeals — humbly posturing for dollar bills in shopping center lots. But, several weeks would pass before I would first meet the homeless 21 year-old young man named Jesse.

It seems for almost five years Jesse’s homelessness went largely unnoticed until more recently when he became the fixture of accounts as stories of the unkempt young man repeatedly filled my voicemail and email box with near sightings. Even for the fleeting passerby the forsaken exploits of squandered youthfulness rarely goes unnoticed before someone picks up a phone.

 It would be a mid-afternoon in August before I first stumbled upon the likes of Jesse’s description in a disheveled persona walking down a Town N’ Country Street. He darted out of view and it was the police instinct that hunted him down feasting inside a Burger King dining room. Most in a state of homelessness are a little distant when confronted by the police without warning —"Are you Jesse?" it was obvious that he thought twice before responding to my question and when he did his answer came across as defensive.

I introduced myself, “I’m Deputy Donaldson,” and with this announcement there was a sign of relief with his response, “You’re Deputy Donaldson … I’ve been looking for you!” Little did he know that this chance encounter would be the first day that would begin his recovery from the streets.

What saved Jesse from what may have been a life of homelessness is a term we now call street engagement and it is augmented by a modified expression of the long arm of the law. Jesse was homeless for almost five years simply because as a wayward homeless youth on the streets he was left to his own devices without interruption. As it stands right now, by default from a lack of better options, we fully expected Jesse and other homeless youths like him to solve his own problems knowing that his best work got him into this predicament in the first place.

 Many would argue that Jesse is the victim of life’s social ills and perhaps being the product of a wretched and disadvantaged upbringing. And, you may be right on all of these accounts but sympathy by itself won’t solve any of Jesse’s problems — and, sympathy by itself without disruption of his current pattern of behavior could and will make Jesse’s problems much worse. 

The most compelling argument should be the more obvious one considering how long Jesse remained on the streets unfettered and unrestrained: regardless of the homeless recovery mechanism of assistance deployed, regardless of how much money is spent on federal, state, and local programs to help people like Jesse off the streets — if we don’t unearth these homeless youth from their unconstrained slumber and anonymity — if we don’t find them, engage them, and redirect them, we will never be able to help them get off the streets.

We should all accept the fact that there will never be enough money, otherwise known in institutional and non-profit parlance as funding, to solve all of our problems. Since 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that almost $3 Billion dollars is spent annually on federal homeless programs and the fight to end homelessness is nowhere in sight. 

Homeless assistance agencies will never have the required funding to provide the girth of street outreach to make even a dent in the size and scope of our homeless population. So, it’s time to consider some legitimate options that have  more logistical appeal based on the resources that we already have at our disposal.

Could the long arm of the law become an expression for homeless recovery and assistance?

 One of Hillsborough County’s most “incorrigible” homeless men has been arrested a startling eighty times since 1996 which has obvious implications with the associated burden on local county services. Without having to do the math it should be clear that law enforcement agencies already have skin in the game with a seemingly accidental vested interest with the likes of this one man living on the streets. Law enforcement agencies across our nation exhausting assets on similar contributors of blight have a simple business decision to make: would you invest a nickel of your resources to help this same man off the streets to save a dollar in expenses that you would otherwise exhaust when we arrest him more than eighty times?

The appropriate answers should come to us without question when we are headed into a steeper decline of belt tightening and budget cuts. Helping a homeless youth like Jesse and other men and women experiencing similar plight is not only deference to duty as public servants but it is also a resounding and solvent business decision in these fiscally uncertain times.

Efficient and successful homeless recovery is more about establishing relationships through street engagement that thoughtfully disrupts and realigns a wayward soul redirecting them individually towards a path of self sufficiency.

Beyond my beat-cop salary it should prove interesting that this method costs us virtually nothing.

In contrast, conventional and standardized efforts mandate funding the many locks and levers of institutional programs that first require supportive infrastructure and layered management before the first candidate is offered help. I’m certain there is a productive outcome to this mesmerizing madness but if a homeless candidate should successfully navigate the labyrinth of social assistance the follow-up question should be, when compared to the expense: what was the margin of success? 

We have discovered the iconic imagery of the nostalgic beat cop has many problem solving virtues that we can exploit to better our communities and the people within them — but, only if we wield our perceived authority in the right direction and for the right purpose. The young man named Jesse passed through the conventional and standardized system to no avail and landed back on the streets where he fell back in my lap.

Jesse's ultimate success only proves to me that we will not likely be able to buy our way out of our current homeless epidemic so we better start becoming a lot more creative with the resources we already have and spend a lot less money on air-conditioned office space. 

Deputy Steven Donaldson
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
Homeless Initiative
District III Office: (813) 247-033

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