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Friday, November 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Michael Cain: What I learned serving the homeless

Michael Cain

The current election season has highlighted homelessness as one of the region’s most pressing issues. The Spokesman-Review’s coverage has done a great service to the subject, but one perspective has been missing: that of one who has worked extensively with the homeless. I’d like to fill that gap.

For over nine years, I was assistant director at the House of Charity, Catholic Charities’ Spokane homeless shelter. For the past 20 years, I’ve also belonged to another organization working to prevent homelessness. Here are the insights I consider most pertinent at this critical moment.

Several things become clear dealing with the House of Charity’s segment of the homeless community – those with nowhere else to go. First, mental illness is its defining feature. My colleagues and I were confident the incidence of mental illness among our clients was at least 75%. While this figure is far higher than any clinically derived number I’ve seen, it was based on close, daily observation over years. I stand by it.

Second, mental illness goes hand-in-hand with substance abuse. Rare is the person faced with the horrors of homelessness who wouldn’t soon turn to alcohol or other self-medication. The next step is often addiction, at which point one is in real trouble. Because mental illness treatment streams often exclude patients with addictions and vice versa, those with dual diagnosis – mental illness plus addiction – frequently cannot access treatment. Accordingly, dual diagnosis is often fatal.

Finally, the homeless people I’ve known aren’t “other,” they are “us.” They are human beings who, despite their setbacks, have hopes and dreams, who want to be loved and live in a peaceful world where they can use their talents, realize their potential and live in dignity.

Indeed, the most important thing I learned serving the homeless is that the only things separating us were completely beyond our control: the health and talent we’re given (or not); the family into which we’re born; the communities in which we grow up; the health care and educational opportunities to which we have access; the trauma to which we’re subjected. (Most of the homeless have suffered extreme trauma – research suggests 80% of homeless women are victims of domestic violence.)

All of these factors combine to make us who we are, and we have control over few, if any, of them. We richly blessed can no more take credit for our lives than the homeless can be blamed for theirs.

Still, there’s fear of the homeless in our community, based perhaps on a perception that the homeless are responsible for significant crime. But as The Spokesman-Review has reported, statistics don’t support this. (“Do crime rates rise with homelessness in Spokane?” April 17, 2019.) Neither does my own experience, which has been that the homeless are far more likely to be the victims of crime than perpetrators of it.

Those hesitant to venture downtown due to concern about crime should know their fear pales in comparison with that of the homeless, whose vulnerability should gain them our sympathy and support rather than our contempt.

Extreme poverty is one of the great emergencies of our time. Homelessness is the end product of the shortcomings of our systems of economics, education and health care, the disintegration of the family and all the factors causing it, and, most recently, lack of adequate affordable housing. In short, homelessness is the tip of the iceberg that is the global failure of society. It is the very essence of complexity.

The prospect of “solving” homelessness is thus daunting, and it would be easy to give up in despair. But there are solutions, and many of them are already underway here. They deserve the time and effort necessary to bring them to fruition. Other solutions not yet under broad consideration also offer promise. Foremost among these is homelessness prevention. Preventing homelessness in the first place is the best solution for it, yet only a handful of small, nongovernmental organizations are addressing this locally. Expanding that effort should be a top priority.

One solution stands out as opportune: selecting the best leaders in the upcoming election. The differences between Spokane candidates are stark.

One group is offering not only sound solutions based on proven best practices, but experience, records of collaboration, extensive community relationships, and spirits of innovation and optimism. More, they’re actually hard at work implementing solutions.

The other group has taken a populist path, offering simplistic approaches to complex problems and implying their nebulous plans will yield immediate results. While this populism offers great sound bites, it does a grave disservice to the problem of homelessness. Populism ends the conversation rather than continues it, eschews hard work rather than does it, and condemns viable solutions rather than develops them. Worse, its local boosters spurn opponents already up to their shoulders in the dirty, thankless work of reducing poverty and homelessness.

The best contribution toward addressing local homelessness anyone can make right now is a carefully considered ballot.

Michael Cain lives in Spokane.

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