Our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s: an ethic of care

In the fall of 2004, several hundred people came together to participate in a roundtable discussion on homelessness in Orange County, and out of this discussion the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness was born.

In a video portrait of homelessness in Orange County commissioned for that meeting, one young man’s comments stood out, and they’ve stayed with me. He pronounced himself “homeless by choice”: he had opted out of society because he believed that society had gone badly astray, and he wanted no part of it. Although his choice was hard to imagine, and terribly sad, I found I had to respect his logic.

Corey Root, the coordinator of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, would not be so quick to accept such an argument at face value. “What is going on with our services that people don’t want them?” she would ask. “It’s on the community to figure out what’s not working, to ask how can we make our services irresistible to folks.”

These were her comments last week as she opened a meeting designed to introduce members of the community to the work of the Partnership. The aim of this and other public meetings she has been convening is to educate the community in some big changes in the way homeless services are being reconceptualized and delivered.

The federal HEARTH Act compels communities to look holistically at needs and services: not just how many people are housed in shelters, for example, but what happens to them afterward. Not just how many programs are offered, but how they are coordinated to best serve the county as a whole.

The “housing first” model, as implemented in Orange County, reflects this new approach. It begins by prioritizing the most vulnerable, coupling their housing with the fully panoply of services that they need. This approach represents a huge shift from the old model, called “housing ready,” according to which a person had to meet all sorts of behavioral standards before they could be considered for housing. Put crudely but not inaccurately, a person had to “deserve” a home. The “housing first” philosophy is not only more forgiving, it offers a greater chance of success, for things like keeping to a medication schedule or getting ready for a job interview–the kinds of things you might need to do to “deserve” a home–are much easier to manage if you have a home base.

Implicit in the “housing first” model is another shift in thinking: social workers are no longer charged with “fixing” everything that might be wrong with the homeless person. Case management bears a lighter touch, addressing only what is necessary to enter and retain housing. Indeed, the aim is a customized approach for each household, “so that your social worker is right there at your table–you don’t need to go to a budget class,” says Root.

How well are these strategies working? Orange County’s annual “point in time” numbers have been trending down, but no one is claiming victory. It’s possible that there are fewer homeless people, but it’s equally possible that people who were homeless in Orange County are now homeless somewhere else; or that the count is simply inaccurate. What is beyond question is the commitment of so many people and organizations to keep working on these systemic changes, so that the homeless experience is rare, brief, and not to be repeated.

Root’s information sessions are meant to acknowledge that systemic change is hard. To shift toward a system in which the success of individual programs is less important than their larger impact is to ask agencies to work differently. It requires new tools of data analysis, new methods of coordinating a person’s progress. Working at the micro and macro level at the same time can, in fact, seem kind of exhausting.

And yet it strikes me as the only way forward if Root’s challenge is to be taken seriously: How can we craft our human services so that they are “irresistible” to people so desperately in need?

The assumptions behind this ambitious way of thinking owe something to the moral theory called the “ethics of care,” a theory elaborated and popularized by feminist theorist Carol Gilligan in In a Different Voice (1982). “The ethics of care starts from the premise that as humans we are inherently relational, responsive beings and the human condition is one of connectedness or interdependence,” Gilligan writes. An ethic of care challenges us to recognize that, as Root understands the dilemma of homelessness, “It’s on the community.”


Credit: Ezra Rose Greenfield, http://ezragreenfield.carbonmade.com


Comments are closed.