Yesterday, Susan and I heard a talk by the new head of Grand Junction Economic Partners. Robin Brown is smart, dynamic and great for the job. Her informative presentation about the valley's economic development plan was based on the idea of Topophilia, a strong sense and love of place.
The same day in the local paper, I noted the name of a woman arrested for drug possession. She came here in part because of family connections, participated in a women's support group, and was working honestly on achieving sobriety. Let's call her Hope.
Normally, I'd see Hope at the Day Center where I volunteer. She came in daily and we had good conversations, not just about her struggles and her homeless state, but about other things. She lived for seven years in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, but we have more in common right here.
I last saw her when the Day Center closed the first of March for a reconstruction and expansion. Long term, that is good a thing. For the summer, however, it means a hundred or more people like Hope have lost one of its most important services.
Provisions have been made so they can get showers, collect mail and do laundry. But they no longer have a safe, drug-free place off the street that is theirs.
Robin Brown doesn't know Hope. She may not know any people experiencing homelessness. Based on her remarks, Robin, like others in the community, views visible homelessness as a detriment, a reality that economic development efforts must overcome, because "we can't do anything about the homeless."
I get that view. I wrote a novel about the intersection of a community's hopes for itself and the individuals not included in those aspirations.
But there's another way to look at homelessness—as a failure of economic development to produce living wage jobs and affordable housing. Indeed, the plan for the valley focuses on high-wage employers and housing for those families who come here to work for those companies.
Robin mentioned a visit to Boise, Idaho, where she remarked on the lack of visible homelessness on the streets downtown. The answer she got—probably from another economic development person, not a homeless advocate—was that the city had co-located all the relevant services at a location away from the core business district.
That's not a bad approach, but it's not simple or sufficient. Moving homelessness out of sight does not address the core issues where economic development has something important to contribute—jobs, housing and a robust tax base that can help fund social services. And, if it contributes to higher housing costs and loss of low-income housing, development can actually undermine progress to reduce homelessness.
I am rooting for Robin Brown and the community to succeed. And I am rooting for Hope to succeed, too, because that means things are really working in this place they both love.