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How Cities Disempower Community Groups Seeking to Solve Homelessness

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Amanda McGimpsey
November 12, 2019

As a Policy Advocate for homelessness, I engage with the worlds of both city officials and social workers though I do not fully belong to either world. It has given me a unique perspective on the power structures at play in our communities and how an ambiguous decisionmaking process can lead to disempowered volunteers and ineffective government. I serve on a volunteer community task force for homelessness whose purpose is to promote regional collaboration between elected officials, service providers, faith-based organizations and community volunteers. I interact with many different cities in the region who all have differing policies on how a city should address homelessness. I also have working relationships with multiple nonprofits, service providers and community groups.

What I have learned is that people want to be part of the solution. And community task forces can be the conduit to channel the energy of the community through empowered volunteerism. A recent example is a volunteer-based initiative to bring a mobile shower unit to the region. The task force created a sub-committee to champion the effort. Over the course of six months, the sub-committee partnered with local contractors to refurbish a mobile shower unit. The task force partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to develop a fundraising campaign to raise donations from both businesses and community members. Most importantly, the task force used its connections to identify local service providers and churches who agreed to host the mobile shower on their property and provide volunteers to operate it.

The Mobile Shower project was successful because there was a clear objective and the sub-committee was given the authority to make leadership decisions on the project. However, not every task force project has been this successful. A similar sub-committee was formed to work with a local city to create a storage unit for the homeless to store their belongings. The arrangement created an ambiguous leadership structure in which it was not clear who was leading the project⁠—the city or the task force. After multiple months the task force had not made any progress and the city decided to place a pause on the project. Now, even though the task force wanted to pursue the project, the task force felt disempowered by the city to move forward.

In my experience, empowering homeless task forces becomes most complicated when the project involves creating a physical location; such as a storage unit or a shelter. Physical locations often require permits and approval from cities. The process can also be much more expensive and government funding often becomes necessary in order to make it a reality. Above all, physical locations require that the city takes a formal position on the root cause of homelessness and how to solve it. And for some cities, that can be a politically and financially precarious stance to make.

The result is that homeless task forces are often only effective with developing supplemental programs such as a Mobile Shower program or a resource website. These are generally low-dollar, volunteer-run, non-physical locations that the city can support from afar without putting itself in a politically or financially vulnerable position. The problem with this approach is that it limits the success of the city to solve homelessness overall. Instead of harnessing the power of the volunteer network to make big change, the city is left on its own to solve the larger issues, which often means important things like housing go unaddressed. By disempowering these task forces from pursuing large projects, the city is unwittingly contributing to the problem.

So, how can cities and task forces get out of this catch 22? The first step is reframing the issue to build support within the community for larger projects addressing homelessness. For cities, this starts from the top by changing the narrative of how city officials present the issue. Most constituents take cues from city leaders. If the leaders are publicly supportive of homeless services, this will help change the perspectives of community members. A community task force can also take steps to change public opinion by galvanizing its volunteers to speak with their elected officials about their support for homeless services. Once the task force gets one city to support the project it will be easier to bring more cities on board.

The second step is reducing leadership ambiguity and empowering the task force to act. The city should acknowledge that a task force made up of service providers can bring expertise that the city does not have. The city should, therefore, support the recommendations of the task force and give it the resources it needs to succeed. It is worth noting that resources do not necessarily have to be financial. For some cities, it may not be financially viable to fund a shelter. But there are nonfinancial ways to support a shelter like streamlining building permits, fostering collaboration between the task force and the city housing department and building community support.

Ultimately, solving homelessness will not be accomplished in silos. Cities, service providers and community volunteers must work together. Only when their efforts are aligned will real change happen.

Author: Amanda L McGimpsey is a policy analyst and community advocate focused on creating partnerships to solve social issues. She is currently pursuing an MPA from San Diego State University. With a decade of experience working in the field of higher education she has an interest in reexamining complex social issues to promote social equity. [email protected]

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