The issue of homeless community members is once again a major topic of civic discussion. This is a recurring conversation.
If the community keeps applying the same thinking to the problem, homelessness as a percentage of the population is likely to worsen. This is a pessimistic statement, but global trends indicate we are in disruptive times with less and less demand for the skills possessed by many people. It takes a very resilient person to successfully weather these winds of change. Unfortunately, personal resiliency is not a strong character trait among many of the homeless in our community.
Community leaders are doing their best to manage the public issues created by these disruptions. Examples include the increased emphasis on affordable housing by the municipality and the increased attention on social and mental support services. The municipality is trying to respond with efforts to diversify housing options to accommodate low- to moderate‐income households. The introduction of new housing options, such as small‐lot development, housing first efforts and accessory dwelling units, represents efforts to meet rising demand for more affordable housing options. The Anchorage community is indeed trying to deal with the issue using the tools it has available.
But the problem continues to get worse. It must be frustrating for those most impacted by the homeless, and one can feel their pain as they reach for extreme approaches. Those on the front lines of response to the problem of homelessness soldier on as best they can as they labor under an increasing burden. The homeless service providers are consistent in voicing the need for more of the community's scarce resources to lessen their loads. But will additional funding applied using the same tools produce real solutions, or will it just perpetuate approaches that are failing to meet the need?
When one reads the writings of the homeless and service providers, one can see they understand that homelessness is not amenable to simple solutions. They often refer to the use of systemic approaches because they acknowledge the complexity of the issues. But there are places within every complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. If we truly want to address a deeply rooted, systemic problem like homelessness, we need to look at whether just the provision of more housing and expanded services will solve the problem.
I suggest it may be time for folks to consider looking at homelessness through a different lens. We intuitively know that systems are more than the sum of their parts. We also know that individuals are capable of incredible actions when motivated. When one looks at the various types of homeless individuals in our community, it is readily obvious not everyone is equipped with even the most basic of life's essential skills. Thus personal resiliency for them is extremely weak. However, even for those struggling just to survive, there is power in their spirit. This core spirit of the human individual is what needs to be tapped.
The community can help homeless people tap into their latent potential. It can do so by reaffirming they are valued as members of our community. Being valued members of the community means they are entitled to certain individual rights of self‐determination, and that during tough times, a helping hand will be extended to them. But it also means they must shoulder their fair share of communal obligations. It is this latter point that has been missing in public policies toward the homeless and those receiving public services. I assert that this small policy shift in how we approach the issue of providing assistance to those in need could significantly improve the effectiveness of our public support systems.
Such a change would not be unwarranted, for it represents an integral part of what it means to be an Alaskan. Our Alaska Constitution, in Section I, "Inherent Rights," states: "This constitution is dedicated to the principles that all persons have a natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and the enjoyment of the rewards of their own industry; that all persons are equal and entitled to equal rights, opportunities, and protection under the law; and that all persons have corresponding obligations to the people and the state."
When homeless people choose to partake of free public benefits, they are also choosing to assume private reciprocal obligations to the community that provides these benefits. Assumption of obligations to the people and the larger community can be fulfilled by private individuals, at the very least, by respecting the public realm of our streets and green spaces. This small policy shift establishes a minimum set of rules for homeless people to live by as part of a community. It serves as a foundation for self‐control.
Such a change in policy could cause positive ripples throughout the complex system we've created to address homelessness. We should clearly state we are in this together. But we should reaffirm to those receiving help from the community they must also accept responsibility, however small to fulfill their mutual obligations toward a healthier, safer and more resilient community.
Allen Kemplen has long been active in civic activities, including two terms as a state representative, and is currently president of the Fairview Community Council.
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