Homelessness: a modest proposal

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

Homelessness is one of those “sticky” issues.

Ever increasing numbers of homeless individuals and families put more and more pressure on our city’s essential services and budgets.

Those tents and makeshift shelters are a mess – and a health and safety hazard.

They make a near-permanent stain on every city’s – and neighborhood’s – reputation and real or perceived value.

There are as many “causes” of homelessness as there are those who are homeless; job-loss leading to eviction, illness or domestic abuse, changes in zoning, fires, floods and other natural catastrophes, construction projects, mental or physical health breakdowns and a hundred other shifts in policy or budgets.

No matter the cause, with each decision or budget cut, a few, or more than a few, individuals or families are cast out of the system.

These human “castoffs” pile off on our streets.

There are no winners in this ever-more dire and appalling situation.

And, as we all know, we in our community are not alone in this spiraling situation that only seems to get worse with each new season or budget cycle.

There are a few non-negotiables in the housing market as we know it in the early 2020s.

First, housing prices keep growing – dramatically.

Home prices are growing, and they are growing far faster than pay scales.

More and more potential home-buyers are being pushed out of the market – and sometimes even literally out of their homes.

Second, no community is alone – or immune – when it comes to these dynamics. Many, if not most, cities are overwhelmed by homeless numbers.

Third, each dislocated person or family took their own route to the place where they find themselves.

By whatever set of circumstances or decisions, they find themselves locked out of something they always thought they would have.

Fourth, homelessness is rarely, if ever permanent. Few, if any, of the homeless were born into or raised in that condition.

One way or another, the vast majority of them will regain their footings and establish a home of some sort around themselves.

Fifth, homeless people cost us all.

In taxes, health care, law enforcement, sanitation and clean-up and of course, the uncountable cost of reputation and what might be called community curb-appeal.

There are, perhaps, a few universal and transferrable solutions to this set of dynamics, from universal basic income to housing subsidies to ADUs or other massive rezoning proposals.

Some work for some communities or some individuals, and some don’t. In other words some solutions are global while others are necessarily local with a community focus.

Each community has its own challenges and recourses, it’s own assets, character and aspiration that sets it apart and defines, or precludes, the possibilities in front of it.

Study after study has shown that the vast majority of the homeless (in most cases about 80%) are not that far from home.

Many of those who are nearly invisible to most of us were once workers or students, and many will be again.

Many of them had careers, and families, even homes.

Many of them have skills that could be put to use for their – or our – benefit.

And the majority of them, like us, would far prefer to be contributors to the larger community.

Many of them have more fundamental and co-occurring challenges that keep them from gaining any traction in the housing market.

And, again, according to many studies, about one fourth of them are employed.

And about half of them are veterans.

And each one has their own way out of homelessness and into the larger, more solid and stable housing community.

Beyond charity

We have a full menu of short term solutions.

Few are more than temporary, and most are grossly inadequate.

Pierce County, for example, on any given night has about 3,300 homeless competing for roughly 1,000 shelter beds.

And what are those 3,300 or so expected to do during the day?

Many of us might not want to see them, but their visibility is unavoidable.

And their voices, as much as we might not want to hear them, must be heard.

One solution is Dignity City (https://www.dignitycity.org). This is a newspaper put together and sold by homeless people – it gives them a voice and a purpose and a place in the community.

Some communities are buying and converting “distressed” hotels and motels into semi-permanent housing for the homeless.

This is a positive step, however I don’t know about anyone else, but a hotel room is far from a “home”.

And that might be the problem; we can’t really decide what “home” is.

“Home” is shelter, a place to call our own, a place of refuge and safety, a place we have made with our own hands, a place others have helped us build, and in recent years, for many of us, an investment.

Housing is all of the above – and more.

So how’s this for a modest proposal?

I’d like to propose something like a free-trade zone, a place where shelter, some materials and maybe a bit of guidance is available, without the usual restrictions, zoning rules or guidelines, where people could literally build what they want and need.

Zoning, after all, almost always enshrines whatever land use happens to be the first in a specific location. And, in theory at least, encodes in the law “reasonable neighborly agreements as to the use of land.”

What that generally means in practice is that virtually every neighborhood is inherently unplanned – but also inflexible for any future needs or contingencies.

It would be easy to make the argument that, in the current housing market, zoning is to blame for high housing costs in coastal cities as it restricts certain projects – and entirely eliminates others – like the old style boarding house.

Habitat for Humanity, Second Use and other housing/construction agencies and businesses could contribute training and materials. Classes could be held on-site.

Tacoma-Pierce County has many vacant/unused lots and many buildings that could use some focused care and specialized restoration.

How about a housing program, similar to the various business incubator programs, where the basics, like utilities and security are provided, but besides that, residents can construct whatever version of home their resourcefulness, diligence and serendipity will provide them?

These could be model communities of self-built homes.

We’ve all heard of tiny-home communities. These would be similar, but built by those who live in them.

Pride of accomplishment and pride of ownership are powerful forces. In fact you could say that they are what make any community desirable.

A neighborhood of owner-built homes would have a very different character than a contractor-built cluster of “spec” homes.

In fact, at their best, a neighborhood of these non-standard, improvised, owner-built homes could be an attraction for those who appreciate art, architecture and affordable housing solutions.

In our community we have an abundance of resources, a large skill base and more available land than most communities.

We also have one more thing most cities don’t have – a strong desire to NOT look like every other city.

This “modest proposal” would ensure that.