Sabrina Caserta and Jasmin Picariello.
credit: Sabrina Caserta and Jasmin Picariello.

Choosing between managing and ending homelessness is a false choice and irresponsible advice to give the District’s new mayor in the middle of an ever increasing crisis. The District has joined a growing number of communities across the country willing to admit that their best local efforts to end the persistent and chronic social disorder of homelessness has failed and worse yet has resulted in an increase.

Without overstatement or exaggeration, we can declare that homelessness in Washington is at a dangerous level requiring immediate action: the city’s response to homelessness, as a radical expression of persistent poverty, is both inadequate and inhumane. The mayor’s new head of social services and homeless czar both recently testified before the city council, admitting that the city’s historic response to homelessness is itself derelict. It is a system in disarray, failing to help the city’s most vulnerable, and wasting money. The city’s own negative assessment and troubled findings of homelessness are important conclusions and admissions.

The mayor’s advisors believe that now is the time to reorient our thinking away from managing homelessness to ending it. This is bad advice and has already begun to have dangerous and damaging consequences.

The truth is that every plan called “ending homelessness” has only led to increases in the numbers of those in need. The correct path is to remain oriented on managing homelessness, well enough to avoid perpetuating its difficulties and smart enough to achieve the end of homelessness through the creation of affordable housing for those in need, when they need it. It is the creation of affordable housing that will end the crisis; everything else has been shown to be unsuccessful.

The overwhelming desire to have a chronic problem go away is shallow impetus for reform. The mayor’s immediate and lasting response to the city’s homelessness crisis will determine whether we truly solve this problem, once and for all, or if we simply kick the can down the road.

The mayor must convey an important message to those concerned, namely, that we will not abandon those who are without housing in the misguided name of progress. Mayor Bowser must declare that she will not be bound by the false choice of managing homelessness vs. ending it. Rather, she will hold her administration to a new standard, where the crisis of homelessness will be managed well, with utmost integrity, in a culture of accountability and improvement. Through these efforts we will achieve housing for all those in need.

Neil J. Donovan previously served as president of the National Coalition for the Homeless and as a senior advisor to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. He can be reached at neiljdonovan@comcast.net.