Take Five!  Q & A with Bob Erlenbusch

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Expert Q & A | January 8, 2008

Bob Erlenbusch
Executive Director, Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
The most important emerging issue around homelessness policy is how we answer the question, “OK, we have a 10 year plan to end homelessness, now what?” However, there are several trends that make the answer to this question very problematic. The first is that many communities have, or are, creating 10 year plans to prevent and end homelessness, but only about half have created bodies to implement their plans and have identified general fund money in their communities. While there have been some success stories in communities like Denver and Portland, overwhelmingly the mandate from HUD to create a plan to end “chronic” homelessness for most communities is largely an unfunded mandate, since the Bush administration is proposing for FY2008 a two billion cut to HUD. This contradiction makes the White House incredibly disingenuous in addressing the national disgrace of homelessness. Without Congress passing the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund, expanding HUD’s budget in general, and Section 8 in particular, these 10 year plans will sit on the shelf in many communities. In the meantime, homeless people will continue to be criminalized and victims of violence.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
That we should never take “we are in a tight budget year and don’t have the funds to build housing in our community, state or nation” as an excuse not to end and prevent homelessness. In my community, Los Angeles, we have 90,000 homeless people on any given night and over 250,000 millionaires. In California, the governor in August 2007 cut the program for the homeless mentally ill, but keep a tax loophole for the wealthy who owns yachts. We must continue to be reminded that our leaders can find money for anything they want to find it for and not be complicit in our efforts to try to do “more with less.” We must continue to remind short-sighted policymakers that the cost of doing nothing about homelessness is even more expensive. Hospitalization is 49 times more expensive that supportive housing. Jail is twice as expensive. We must continue to hold elected officials accountable for ending and preventing homelessness. Our motto needs to be, “No one in this nation should get two homes until everyone has one!”

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
I started working on homeless issues in November, 1984. I was teaching at the university level and was on quarter break. A friend called me and asked if I would like to earn some extra money sending out job notices for a newly funded project called Homeless Health Care Los Angeles [funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation]. At the time I wasn’t very knowledgeable about homelessness. I began working on a project to set up a public health training component, educating emergency shelter providers about public health issues related to homelessness. The person they hired to run the project was a fantastic public health nurse who also had a strong background in social justice issues, including community organizing. She was dedicated to the principle that public health issues included advocating for affordable housing. Based on that conviction, she hired me to be a community organizer. I worked on advocating for affordable housing and employment and income maintenance programs as solutions to prevent and end homelessness, and stayed that course for the next two decades.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I continue to draw my inspiration, in part, from an event that happened quite along time ago. The first was over 20 years ago. I was walking through a homeless encampment created by then Mayor Bradley. It was on a desolate plot of land that was basically tents on a dirt field. I happened to be walking by one tent and I glanced down and a woman with her small child was sleeping in their tent. I noticed that they had placed stones in the dirt to create a “walkway” to their tent and had drawn flowers in the dirt with their fingers. It was an incredible statement about finding dignity and creating beauty in a seemingly ugly environment. It continues to inspire me to see the humanity and dignity in all people and to continue to have the courage to fight for social justice to prevent and end homelessness. Finally, I continue to draw inspiration from three homeless activists and leaders in the fight for social justice in this nation, all three who have passed away. Buddy Gray, John Donahue and Mitch Snyder. Each left a tremendous legacy in their respective communities [Cincinnati, Chicago and Washington, DC] and which we all should aspire.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
There was a time when we did not see people call the streets home. My Mother is 90 years old. My son is 22. My Mom did not see homeless people until Reagan cut the federal affordable housing budget by 75%. On the contrary, homelessness is all my son has ever known. For my son’s generation, it is natural to conclude that homelessness has always been part of the social landscape. Nothing can be further from the truth. Ask anyone old enough to remember 1980.

We can prevent and end homelessness. Is it possible? Of course, since ending it is undoing every failed policy that created it in the first place.

The real question is can we create the political will to make ending homelessness possible?

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