Arizona and Phoenix in particular have an opportunity to take a leadership role in finding solutions to the homelessness issue as they start cleaning up “The Zone. Nearly two decades ago I attended the 15th Annual Arizona Conference on Homelessness where a charismatic young women, Becky Kanis ( Margiotta), made a presentation on a revolutionary new strategy to end Homelessness. It was called “Housing First”. She was co-Director 0f 100,000 Homes and its Director of Innovation. The concept, patterned after a program her organization Common Ground had piloted in New York City, was that if you gave homeless people a home, as opposed to a bed in a shelter, you could really start to solve the homeless problem. They claimed that their pilot program proved that simply housing the homeless would increase the chances that homeless people would become productive and leave homelessness permanently. And if that was true, providing housing was a bargain compared to the cost of the services every other model suggested. It was a solution to the problem, the only problem was it didn’t work; homelessness is more pervasive now than it has ever been.
Becky went on to reach her goal to house the 100,000 homeless people in cities across America. Her “can do” attitude and magnetic personality made her a rock star to those in the social services. She even appeared on 60 Minutes to explain what she was doing. And to be honest when I heard her talk, I was sold. The great thing about her plan was that they believed most of the obstacles to being productive members of the community would just disappear when you got the homeless settled in an apartment. It became such a thing that a cottage industry of self-appointed disciples of Becky developed to help every town take their shot at ending homelessness Sadly that’s not what happened. When it was obvious it wasn’t working as planned, the social service communities response was “we’ll we just need to add some support services”. And that has been the answer for two decades and it’s pretty obvious, as much as we’d like to say it worked, it has not. But you’d be hard pressed to find anyone involved in nonprofit homeless work who will admit that “Housing First” doesn’t work.
In 2017 the Arizona Coalition to End Homelessness merged with the Arizona Housing Coalition and symbolically raised a white flag of surrender in the effort to end homelessness by abandoning their name. But the new group and almost all the smaller groups who provide services for the homeless still chant the” Housing First “ mantra when asked about a solution. And most would claim more funds for more housing and services are the only answer. But for two decades they have done little or nothing to convince the law makers and the public that this is cause worth funding, nor offered an alternative solution. Like too many leaders in the nonprofit world they keep applying the same tired treatments and act surprised when they get the same results. Failing in the for-profit world isn’t fun but you learn what doesn’t work, move on and do it better the next time. Sadly that doesn’t always happen for nonprofits
Not only have those leaders not offered us any new solutions to these problems in decades, but they also have failed to convince us finding solutions is a problem and solution worth investing in. In a time when people like Kari Lake and Wendy Rodgers are raising millions in nondeductible donations from hard working Arizonans for phantom causes, these leaders can’t garner the support needed to deal with a real problem. That’s a problem of leadership, and it stems from lack of creativity, rehashing failed solutions, and not humanizing the problem.
What makes this even more alarming is these leaders who have failed to lead and fight for solutions are now the ones both Governor Hobbs and Mayor Gallegos have advising them on finding solutions. Finding solutions is not going to be easy, but we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. It’s past time to add new faces and new perspectives to the conversation. And that means reaching beyond the limited vision of the nonprofit community. Let’s hope our city and state leaders look towards the silver lining in cleaning up “The Zone” by coming up with fresh and innovative ways to deal with homelessness.
Bill Packard and his wife Barbara have spent the last two decades plus, as volunteers, reviving struggling nonprofits or starting new nonprofits. Their books, “Going Full Circle”, chronicle that journey and share what they learned . They can be reached at email@example.com