Homelessness: A Very Wicked Problem

IMG_4766Wicked problem: a term coined by two UC Berkeley professors of urban planning, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, to describe difficult social policy issues such as poverty, crime, and homelessness. This is included in their still surprisingly relevant journal article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4), 1973, pp. 155-169. Rittel and Webber write, “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning–and especially those of social or policy planning–are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.)” (p. 160)

That last parenthetical comment is worth repeating until it sinks in. Homelessness as a prime example of a wicked problem will never be solved. The most we can hope for is that it will be re-solved. Our U.S. healthcare system is another example of a wicked problem. Therefore, unless my basic math fails me, health care for the homeless is a wicked problem squared. That does not equate with a reason to give up and not even try to address the wicked problems of homelessness and health care. It means that all of us are called upon to have the resolve to figure this out together.

Having a seemingly never-ending assortment of expert panels and reviews of evidence-based practice aimed at finding solutions for the crisis of homelessness may be necessary, but it will never be sufficient. Having a place-based, grass-roots approach and one that is supportive of critical reflection has greater potential for being more broadly effective. And this isn’t mere consumer or community-member token representation on policy committees as is so often practiced.

“Place oriented inquiry and practice emphasizes bottom-up strategies for the adaptive,
sustainable governance of complex dynamic landscapes. Adopting a spatial or place-based perspective helps with recognition that most knowledge is, to a significant degree, local or context-dependent, as all knowledge-holders occupy—by virtue of their biography, training, and geographic experiences—some particular, delimited position from which to observe the world. Wicked-problem conditions, the argument goes, require the cultivation, transmission, and application of existing bottom-up knowledge held by embedded actors in the landscape.” pp. 18-19.

Source: Weber, P. & Lach, Denise & Steel, S.. New Strategies for Wicked Problems: Science and Solutions in the 21st Century. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017.

 

Homelessness: Native Seattle

E23611D1-BEFE-4A2D-AC70-C0BD4D09CA1EI offer these images of Seattle Pioneer Square from my Skid Road street hauntings, alongside powerful quotes from Coll Thrush’s important book Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place, second edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007). Even though it is not specifically about homelessness, it is essential reading for a deeper understanding of homelessness in Seattle.

“In 1991, The Seattle Arts Commission launched an ambitious program called In Public, a citywide set of installations designed to inspire dialogue about the role of art in everyday life. (…) In Public was edgy and controversial. One of the most confrontational pieces, by Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, was installed in Pioneer Place Park alongside the Chief-of-All-Women pole and a bronze bust of Chief Seattle. Called Day/Night, it consisted of two ceramic panels inscribed with dollar signs, crosses, and text in Whulshootseed and English that read ‘Chief Seattle now the streets are your (sic) home. Far away brothers and sisters still remember you.’ Dedicated to the city’s homeless Indians, Day/Night challenged Seattle’s other place-stories.” pp. 173-4.

Note that the images included above are two photographs, a juxtaposition of a “modern” street art image of Chief Seattle from a Pioneer Square alleyway, as well as one panel of Day/Night in English and reads “Chief Seattle now the streets are our home.” The day I took this photograph the second ceramic panel of the Day/Night art installation was not there. Vandalized? Being repaired?

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The second image and quote from Thrush’s Native Seattle have to do with the earliest days of the white American settlers/Pioneers who staked land claims on what is now Seattle’s Pioneer Square—an area that was known as the Little Crossing-Over Place by Chief Seeathl (Seattle). The Little Crossing-Over Place had a source of fresh water and had been an old Indian fishing village. The photograph above is of a Pioneer Square saloon alleyway doorstep (and nighttime sleeping place) located near the Chief Seattle Club, a terrific multi-service agency “providing a sacred space to nurture, affirm and renew the spirit of urban Native people.”

“Indeed, well before the day when Bell, Boren, and Denny decided that Little Crossing-Over Place would be their new home, the indigenous world of the Duwamish, Lakes, and Shilsholes had been irrevocably transformed. The ruined longhouse at Little Crossing-Over Place, overgrown with wild roses (and, according to oral tradition, only one of several that had once stood there), spoke to the abandonment of towns in the wake of epidemics and slave raids. In Whulshootseed, similar words described both houses and human bodies: house posts were limbs, roof beams were spines, walls were skin. Just as sweeping a house and healing a body could be expressed with the same verb, related words spoke of illness and the falling down of a home, and so the ruins were testaments of loss.” p. 38

Below, is a photograph of the native plant, the Nootka Rose, mentioned in the quote above. I took this photograph recently while walking through the University of Washington Botanic Garden’s Union Bay Natural Area— which is built on top of a large Seattle landfill that long ago had been an important Native American fishing village. Thrush concludes his book with these words:

“… in every college diploma earned by an Indian, in the restoration of urban nature and in the willingness to challenge narratives of progress, there is hope that Seattle’s Native past—or, more accurately, its many Native pasts—can be unearthed. These place-stories, linked to urban and Indian presents and futures, will not simply be cautionary tale, smug jokes, or nostalgic fantasies but will be dialogues about the transformations of landscape and power in the city and about strategies for living together humanely in this place.” p. 207

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Homelessness Visible

IMG_4667Our latest point-in-time count of people experiencing “absolute” homelessness in King County tallied 12,112 homeless individuals on January 26th, 2018 (see the All Home King County‘s 2018 report “Count Us In”). By the term “absolute” I refer to the fact that they use the strict HUD definition of homelessness, which excludes the considerable number of people (especially teens and young adults) who are couch-surfing, doubled-up with friends or extended family members and who do not have a safe, stable, affordable place to live. In this respect the HUD definition differs from the official definition of homelessness for healthcare services funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see the various definitions compared here by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council).

The 12,112 homeless individuals counted for 2018 represent a 4% increase over the 2017 homeless count (which represented a 19% increase from the 2016 count). Some politicians claim that the slowing percentage increase in people experiencing homelessness can be counted as progress—although as a reality check, the 4% increase in homelessness is much larger than the total population growth for King County. The most recent published statistics show a 2.3% population growth for King County for 2016-17 (source: Washington State Office of Financial Management). As another significant reality check, the homeless count survey methodology changed considerably for 2017 such that comparisons with 2016 numbers should not be made.

Significantly, the 2018 homeless count found that over half (52%) of homeless people were unsheltered the night of the count, with many people living outside in tents and in vehicles. Having participated in the survey this year, I can attest to the difficulty of finding and assessing whether or not parked vehicles are being lived in between the 2-5 a.m. timeframe the day of the count. It is much easier to count the number of people staying overnight at an emergency shelter. And homeless people living in tents tend to find thickly wooded areas in which to live—and not, as in the photograph above, more visibly along well-lit streets and bike paths. But for all of us who live, work, study, and play in Seattle and throughout the rest of King County, we didn’t need the official homeless count to tell us we have a growing problem. We have homelessness, abject poverty and despair, quite visible.

Note: In a series of subsequent posts I will address intriguing, intelligent, and excellent questions which I have received lately about our homelessness crisis. They were too numerous and complex to address in one post.

 

 

Prostitution: Exploitation, Not Work

IMG_2219A few weeks ago I participated in a powerful healthcare system training titled “Beyond Sex Trafficking: Responding to Commercial Sexual Exploitation and the Role of Healthcare Systems.” Commercial sexual exploitation is the exchange of sex acts for money, or for anything of monetary value, including basic needs such as food, clothing, or shelter. Therefore, it includes survival sex, pornography, escort services, exotic dancing, stripping, and street or hotel or house-based prostitution. Often referred to as “sex work,” this is a mighty misnomer, because it is not a form of work; it is exploitation and violence. And it is gender-based violence since most, but not all, of the victims are girls and women, and the overwhelming majority of buyers are men.

The evidence is clear: no matter what city or county or country (including countries where prostitution is “legalized” and regulated and sanitized), upwards of 90 percent of “sex workers” have histories of childhood sexual abuse, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, and are disproportionately persons of color from lives of poverty, including homelessness. They often come from backgrounds of violence and exploitation, and once they are in the “life” of sex work, they are once again victims of violence and exploitation. And those male buyers of sex? They are disproportionately white and well-off financially. Many buyers are married and occupy high status positions in society, including doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Another interesting fact is that the majority of buyers of sex at some level feel remorse and would like to stop.

The conclusion is clear: There is no such thing as a happy, healthy hooker. Julia Roberts’ character of a prostitute in Pretty Woman is a sick, twisted version of the Cinderella fairytale—a romantic comedy that has nothing to do with true romance and that is decidedly not funny.

Healthcare providers, including nurses and physicians, are on the front-line of caring for victims of prostitution and all forms of sex trafficking and exploitation. We need to learn about these issues and do something about them. A terrific new online healthcare provider training module series on human trafficking (includes sex trafficking) using a public health approach is SOAR, which stands for Stop, Observe, Ask, Respond. Offered free-of-charge through the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office on Trafficking in Persons, it includes three training modules (for CE/CME): 1) SOAR to Health and Wellness, 2) Trauma-Informed Care, and 3) Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services.

For any nurse, physician, social worker, teacher (and other professions specified by law) in Washington State, it’s important to note that mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse includes commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and teens under 18 (1-800-ENDHARM  https://www.dshs.wa.gov/report-abuse-and-neglect). In Seattle/King County, there is the CSEC Hotline: 855-400-CSEC with community advocates 24/7 for sexually exploited youth ages 12-24 in King County; and the Human Trafficking Hotline (24 hrs) at 888-373-7888. Also in King County we have the innovative and nationally-recognized resource, Stopping Sexual Exploitation: A Program for Men. 

Sources and Further Resources:

Ending Exploitation Collaborative/ References and The Harm of Sexual Exploitation 

Organization for Prostitution Survivors 

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Polaris Project

The Life Story, including the powerful video for healthcare providers Medical Emergency 

 

Summer Reading Challenge 2018

IMG_4854This is the third installment of my annual summer reading challenge with a social justice (and feminist) slant. These ten library books include ones related to my current research and writing project, Skid Road: The Intersection of Health and Homelessness, as well as works by women authors I am delighted to discover. Here they are in the order (bottom up) they appear in the photograph. Happy—and meaningful—summertime reading!

  1. Race and Medicine in Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century America, by Todd L. Savitt (Kent, Ohio: The Kent University Press, 2007).
  2. Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion: A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles, by Emily K. Abel (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press,
  3. Imperial Hygiene: A Critical History of Colonialism, Nationalism and Public Health, by Alison Bashford (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
  4. Body and City: Histories of Urban Public Health, edited by Sally Sheard and Helen Power (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company,  2000).
  5. Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980, by Lucille Clifton (Brockport, New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1987.
  6. Woman’s Place: A Guide to Seattle and King County History, by Mildred Tanner Andrews (Seattle: Gemil Press, 1994).
  7. Whose Names Are Unknown: A Novel, by Sanora Babb (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).
  8. How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983).
  9. Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (New York: Anchor Books, 2007).
  10. Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (New York: Anchor Books, 2003).

Stories Matter

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“Stories matter. Many stories matter,” states author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her powerful TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story.”  Adichie points out that listening and clinging to a single story—about a person, a place, a situation—creates stereotypes, and, in her words, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” She goes on to say, “The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity; it makes our recognition of our common humanity difficult; it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

I thought about Adichie’s wise words earlier this week as I moderated a hospital-based panel discussion on service provision and community advocacy to end commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The panel and the day-long training for health care providers included personal stories of survivors of sexual exploitation. None of the survivors remotely resembled Julia Roberts in the “modern Cinderella story” movie Pretty Woman, which reinforces the common stereotype of the high-class and empowered hooker. Instead, the survivors told stories of trauma and violence which both preceded and accompanied sexual exploitation.

In my introductory talk about why this topic matters, I linked to an important storytelling video geared towards healthcare providers on The Life Story website, “Medical Emergency.”  I appreciate how this particular video weaves together the stories of women in their own voices. Advocacy is not about speaking for those less fortunate, less powerful, but of using our own power and privilege to amplify their voices, their stories. Our job as healthcare providers, as compassionate citizens, is to step back and listen respectfully.

Another powerful story came to me today via a colleague who sent me the link to this NYT Op-Docs Season 6 video “We Became Fragments” directed by Luisa Conlon, Hanna Miller, and Lacy Jane Roberts. Through their video, they step back, listen, and then amplify the voice and words of Ibraheem Sarhan, a young Syrian refugee now living in Canada. I love how this short video highlights the importance of competent and compassionate, trauma-informed teachers and healthcare providers. When one of Ibraheem’s teachers gives an in-class assignment to write about their family, the teacher gently points out to Ibraheem that he doesn’t have to write about his family if it is too painful a topic. The teacher must know that a bomb in Syria killed Ibraheem’s mother and siblings and left him with a shattered leg. Ibraheem tells us that when people ask him about his visible leg injury, “they don’t know how much my heart burns when I tell my story.”

Stories matter to the teller and to the listener. What we need more of in this world is for all of us to increase our capacity to listen to a multiplicity of stories and within those stories to recognize our common humanity.

 

 

Worksite Metaphor

IMG_2562This past week I spent time cleaning my office at work, recycling (shredding) the detritus of an academic life: tenure and promotion materials,  teaching evaluations, student papers, and my own papers. I do this periodically to ensure there is never too much of me—of my identity—at work, not from a pathological paranoia, but rather from a desire to maintain healthy boundaries. Or at least that is what I tell myself.

But during the cleaning and sorting I found a hand-written draft of a prose poem that I wrote many years ago during a workshop I taught on narrative medicine. It was in response to a close read and discussion of Jane Kenyon’s poem “The Sick Wife” and her husband Donald Hall’s poem “The Ship Pounding.” As Carol Levine writes in “Two Poets: One Illness,” the poems “…offer a rare view of the same illness from the perspective of the patient (Jane Kenyon) and her husband and caregiver (Donald Hall), both distinguished poets.” (Journal of General Internal Medicine, March 2010, 25(3): 275-275.)

In Hall’s poem he uses the metaphor of a ship to describe his experience in the hospital when his wife was sick. He concludes with describing the hospital as “the huge vessel that heaves water month after month, without leaving port, without moving a knot, without arrival or destination, its great engines pounding.” I used as an accompanying writing prompt for workshop participants to write a description of their own metaphor for their particular work site. What is your metaphor for your own work site? Here is what I wrote (and found while cleaning my office—and have now shredded):

Dusty, moldering storage closet

door with stuff behind

forgotten cast-offs

old files labeled for people and departments and programs that died long ago

textbooks for subjects that are no longer taught

a ceramic statue of Florence Nightingale holding her lamp

beside a bowl of nectaries

people who have retired but won’t leave

people who should retire 

computer parts, old landline phones, stenographic paper

which is what exactly?

My office—bare–no books

A few seashells

I can leave, clear out in a moment

Not closed inside a storage closet.