We will always have Voodoo Donut

· 1142 words · 6 minute read

Two articles this morning:

Kotek and Blumenauer Tell Local Officials: Fix Rampant Drug Use on Portland Streets, Now”:

“The frustration comes at a time when the Joint Office of Homeless Services budget for 2024 is $279 million—not counting $50.3 million in unanticipated receipts that the regional government Metro will soon pass along—and the city has untapped Medicaid funding available to help pay for Portland Street Response to address mental health crises.”

“Blumenauer says he left the May meeting about Portland’s streets with a clear understanding. ‘The consensus of all these experts we brought together is that money is not the problem,’ he says. ‘The question is how we mobilize and utilize the resources we’ve got.’”

The whole article is an interesting read: It hangs the narrative on a closed sobering center and the woeful effort to create a new one. The thing that runs just under the surface, as with almost all these stories, is the system that doles out social services in this county: Government’s role is essentially a giant procurement operation, services are provided by non-profits, and the starvation wages those non-profits can afford means nobody wants the work. I know senior non-profit managers who have lost employees to fast food jobs. Few of the non-profits can make the contracts work.

Assessed as a complete system, it’s a disaster. It reflects the neoliberal mania for privatization, but its design inherently mandates redundant layers of administration and management as dollars pass through the county procurement layer and its army of contract managers, consultants, and the management staff needed to oversee all that; then trickle into the non-profits, who have their own grant writers, development directors, executive directors, administrative staff, management, and actual direct services people.

The ecosystem of non-profits exists in a kind of market: They’re all competing for government dollars, so they exist in a state of year-to-year precarity, all eyeing how much of their addressable market they can capture in their narrow lanes, struggling to balance their capacity to actually help people in need with feeding the administrative machines they depend on to go out and bring the money in.

The disconnect between wages for county employees — the people running the procurement processes — and the people in the non-profits is grotesque. A line manager running a couple of teams in the county’s Joint Office for Homeless Services — a total span of maybe seven or eight people who primarily manage invoicing — makes a little more than a senior director in a mental health non-profit who has a span of seven directors managing whole clinics, and upwards of 50 or 60 people in their organization. It goes downhill from there, with the front-line workers in this system — the people actually delivering services — making fast food wages in unbelievably bad working conditions. It’s a rarity when someone in the non-profit world speaks up about this, because they’re utterly dependent on being in the good graces of the county to get the contracts. And it’s well understood among people doing social work that your best bet is to do your time in the non-profits, build your network, and wait for it to come through with a county job, because that’s where you can get a living wage and decent benefits. The non-profits you’re at in the mean time can’t guarantee that the program covering your wage will survive from year-to-year.

It’s important to understand this whole system, because it helps explain the rise of things like Urban Alchemy, which has contracted with the city to run managed homeless encampments:

How Urban Alchemy Turns Homelessness Into Gold”:

“Like many other cities, San Francisco deals with visible homelessness by ‘sweeping’—in other words, dismantling tent encampments and forcing unhoused residents to move to another area. There’s a shortage of shelter beds across the region, and it is illegal in West Coast states to sweep anyone for whom no bed is available. The Coalition on Homelessness sued San Francisco over this, and a judge temporarily banned sweeps. Still, unhoused people say they are routinely coerced into moving by city officials, police, and Urban Alchemy ambassadors, and they tell us that sweeps remain the main technique that the city uses to manage its unsheltered population. In 2018, after Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, visited San Francisco, she determined that this approach constituted ‘cruel and inhuman treatment’ that violated multiple human rights.

“It’s no wonder, then, that civic leaders in San Francisco and elsewhere are looking for new ways to confront—or at least to appear like they’re confronting—the homelessness crisis. UA skeptics like Kaitlyn Dey, a Portland-based homelessness researcher, argue that politicians use nonprofits to keep their promises to reduce interactions between police and homeless people without substantially changing the system. And to the average liberal city dweller, having a nonprofit administer the sweeps makes that work appear more humane than when armed cops do it. Working with groups like UA also reduces transparency—internal UA e-mails, for instance, are not subject to FOIA requests—insulating local officials should problems arise.”

UA is on the scene in Portland because attempts to deliver managed camping using local providers with a less para-police bent failed: Nobody would take the work. Urban Alchemy’s formula, depending on former convicts, lets them get costs down enough to thrive in an environment where dollars are peanut-buttered through the county procurement bureaucracy before getting into the hands of non-profits, who have to use some of those dollars to maintain their own management and fund-raising staff to remain viable.

My one criticism of the Nation article is its focus on failures to defund the police as the problem:

There is a huge amount of money in the system in our county, approved by voters. The county procurement bureaucracy left over $40 million of it on the table this year, because for all its scale and influence, the Joint Office for Homeless Services utterly failed to scale to accommodate the influx of funds, even as it insures the providers it works with keep wages for their workers low. Local journalists have let us all down on their coverage of that organization.

Maybe that’s the worst part of all of this: We’ve torn the safety net to ribbons, our capacity to help people is radically diminished, and all we’re left with is this absurd, wasteful, abusive system. If you’re a good liberal or progressive type who wants to see vulnerable people helped, you’re trapped between that system and people who don’t even want that to exist. Of course you’re gonna pick a side. But you’ve been forced into a terrible, false choice that guarantees nobody is going to speak up to hold the architects of this mess accountable: They’re all we have, which, now that I think of it, summarizes the state of American politics at all levels pretty neatly.