CIH New York Tour – Day 3 Part 1

Dysfunctional Zero

Day 3 took us out to Hackensack New Jersey for the Bergen County Housing Center. This is a comprehensive service site offering emergency shelter (90 days) but with on-site social assistance, health care, social work, and other services. These are distinct organizations with shared office space allowing for quick and easy collaboration.

The site provided an initially very positive story. The Director noted that they are very housing focused and have good success placing people, she stated they are a low barrier service and noted they focus on those with a high VI-SPDAT (acuity) score, and she highlighted how readily other organizations work with them such as hospitals and policing.

And then she mentioned the drug-sniffing dogs. I thought, “That’s not particularly low barrier.” And that they use biometrics and will inform police about certain individuals being present in shelter.

So I got curious and looked up the incarceration rate for New Jersey. It’s 3.4/1,000 as opposed to 1.0/1,000 in Ontario. That means a 340% higher incarceration rate or 3.4x as many people incarcerated. Some folks from B.C. had lamented the high incidence of public drug use in their communities. If B.C. incarcerated to the level of New Jersey that would mean 8,400 more people in prison. Essentially you take everyone from the downtown east side of Vancouver, and all substance users from Victoria, Prince George, Nanaimo, etc. and put them in jail and you have the New Jersey situation.

And this, as we all know, is horribly expensive. New Jersey’s corrections budget (and it’s a tiny state) is nearly half of Canada’s entire federal corrections budget. Essentially they are spending billions of dollars to who people experiencing homelessness and people who use drugs in jails.

The Director noted that their county has achieved functional zero. In fact, it invited them to the WhiteHouse to celebrate this achievement. But it strikes me that functional zero is a heck of a lot easier if you’re putting everyone with complex needs into jails. Indeed, I would call that dysfunctional zero.

One of the questions I think we need to be continuing to ask ourselves is, “What our the values that underpin our system?” Currently, one of those values is avoiding incarceration for addiction, which is a medical issue. If we have a concurrent housing failure that means those living with an addiction end up experiencing homelessness I believe the solution is not to give up on our values and start incarcerating/institutionalizing people, it’s to solve the housing problem.

So what I learned this morning is the value of respecting people’s humanity and that the opposite is a very carceral logic of stark and harsh services, forcing outcomes, and locking up those who don’t fit that outcome. No thanks.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *