Santa Rosa Together Friends,
Last week, Pat sent the Steering Committee a summary of the June 9 Council Study Session on homelessness. Pat was right to emphasize the importance of our Council’s support for expanding efforts to address this issue. Council is on track to add $500,000 to expand outreach and sanitation services for those living on the street. Pat was also right about Council’s support for engaging the community in the work to help the homeless. Chris was especially good in describing the need for more community involvement. And it was at Sean’s initiative that community engagement was added to the plan presented by city staff to Council. This plan, with 50K for outreach support, was approved by Council. So all this was good, as Pat reported.
But, something else became apparent to me as I listened to all the discussion. For one thing, when the Council members all summarized their position on the city proposal towards the end of the meeting, none of them mentioned engagement. You got the impression that engagement was good, but not really a priority. Our position, the one we tried to articulate in our message and presentation, was that helping our homeless community members is a task that really requires the engagement of all of us. It is too big and difficult a problem for governments, even in partnership with not-for-profits, to handle by themselves. We were hoping that this point would come across strongly and be emphasized at the Council meeting. It was not. There was an opportunity for Council to begin to talk about and emphasize a new way of engaging the community to solve problems, but that didn't happen.
Not only is the problem of homelessness too big for governments and professionals, if a plan for addressing homelessness is developed without community engagement, it will also not include important community input and will surely meet strong opposition. The beginning of neighborhood and business opposition to plans that did not include their input was already present at Council yesterday. Addressing homelessness will require us to find common ground and work together and without a strong effort to engage our community in a meaningful way, we will not find the common ground we need to really succeed. Once again, only Chris mentioned the need for this and only at the beginning of the meeting.
I also learned a lot about all the current work going on to help the homeless. I am guessing all the main players working to help the homeless were at this discussion and the work they described was very impressive. We also heard a lot of new ideas during the public comment period. It was clear that all those engaged were working hard and doing great work to try to meet the needs of the homeless. There was a real feeling of commitment and collaboration in the room that was very impressive. But, I couldn't help but notice that there was another side to this that was also very revealing. Not one of the service providers picked up on the importance of getting more of our community engaged in this work. I got the impression that this was a discussion of professionals and government, working together to find ways to improve and expand their work to address homelessness. This was business as usual for Council and those they fund, business as usual at its best, but still business as usual. None of the participants took a broader view of engaging the community to find ways to give everyone a voice and role in this work. Most of the information that the community would need to be informed and find ways to work together had also been collected by the participants, but no one seemed to recognize the need to find a way to use that information to inform the community.
So, two lessons for me: we do have support from Council and the City Manager for beginning to move in a new direction, but that support is not that strong and clear. And we really have hardly made a dent in the non-for-profit world and in the usual way of doing business for city and county government. We have a lot of work to do and our plan to find ways to sustain a long term effort will be crucial. So, main lesson for me from the Council meeting: we have made some small steps, but there is a long way to go. If we can take the opportunity to make the community wide conversation on homelessness a success, we will be able to demonstrate the value of giving everyone a voice and role. Then, in future Council meetings like yesterday's, there might be more support for including everyone in the work.