All in the Name — Shared Prosperity!

Dubuque — apply your values to homelessness

Diane Nilan
4 min readJan 19, 2023

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My van parked on the Mississippi River at Dubuque. Photo Diane Nilan

20 years ago this month, I was in Dubuque speaking to Clarke College students about homelessness. What a perfect time to revisit Dubuque, a “typical” Midwestern city, to see how they’re doing on this vexing issue.

A few months ago, I opined on the direction some leaders suggested to deal the presence of unhoused people on the streets of the “Masterpiece on the Mississippi.” Their approach boiled down to the short-sighted method of too many communities — move ’em out.

I just learned about Dubuque’s “secret weapon” to deal with homelessness — the Office of Shared Prosperity. The establishment of this office followed an extensive examination of poverty in Dubuque. Dubuque put lots of effort into developing this official city program.

Yeah, But…

While I think it’s admirable, and essential, for any city to focus on inequity — the opposite of prosperity — I will toss out a bit of reality therapy with the intention of helping this office to better share prosperity.

Quite simply, how much do you know about homelessness? Many equate homelessness with the bedraggled men and women whose very appearance strikes fear/fury in the hearts of the unknowing. Not even close.

In reality, the label of homeless can apply to a much broader population, mostly invisible. Families, youth and adults who have lost housing comprise a skyrocketing segment of every community’s population, especially in the wake of the pandemic. They swirl around in a variety of inadequate and temporary solutions that may or may not keep them from literally hitting the streets. Meeting their needs is essential, and expensive — the main reason they continue to be in such dire straits. Not meeting their needs is even more expensive, and harmful.

Growing Homelessness — Look at Root Causes

What few realize, homelessness doesn’t just refer to those wandering on the streets. They are the tip of the iceberg, or the canary at the entrance of the mineshaft.

As an example, an astounding 44% of Dubuque’s population fall below United Way’s “Household Survival Budget,” aka ALICE, a more comprehensive measure of poverty than the out-of-date federal poverty measure. Households at risk of survival teeter on the edge of homelessness. Since most Covid federal relief programs expired, those most vulnerable find themselves without a place to live.

I addressed a community forum in Carbondale, IL, where they watched my film, Social InSecurity, https://youtu.be/_NUDqvpm6WE Photo Diane Nilan

Know What You’re Doing

Those charged with sharing prosperity, as well as those sitting on the committees or with job descriptions to address homelessness, need to understand a few essential facts:

  • Homelessness has many causes, and many factors perpetuate it. Here’s a chart that I created about Other Stuff.
  • Our nation’s approach to homelessness has been fractured, underfunded, and/or failed. Despite those who’ve put lots of effort into the challenge, we’ve never really done anything but piecemeal, often directed by those with the least knowledge of the complicated issues besetting those on the streets. Fickle funding doesn’t help. Neither does fear. Those two underlying shortcomings continue to sabotage any worthy efforts.

    This article, by someone I respect, outlines current federal approaches, with some successes. But what happens when Congress starts, um, tinkering with budget priorities?
  • Dubuque’s list of agencies and organizations serving poverty populations doesn’t quite tell the story. The test is how well do they meet the need, and what happens to those they can’t serve? Questions need to be asked — who are we not serving? Why not? What happens to them? Can we figure out how to meet their needs?
  • Treating homelessness like a crime does no one any good except those in the corrections “industry.” Look at your current policies and practices from the standpoint of those with no places to live. Don’t make their lives worse. Share prosperity!
  • If you’re charged with dealing with homelessness, find out — first hand — what is really available in your community to address this issue. Visit shelters and other programs. Talk to those who know the problem first hand — those without homes.

Learn What Works/Doesn’t Work

Here’s an excellent article on the underlying issues every community faces. Don’t dismiss it because it’s the ACLU, or because they’re writing about NYC. Issues are similar, scaled to the size of the communities. Human nature and the baggage we all carry is also similar. Getting past our foibles, and our communities’ inadequacies, can happen with the Shared Prosperity approach, if done comprehensively.

Two larger municipal areas — Houston and San Diego — provide essential lessons on what happens when cities take different approaches to addressing homelessness. This article gives a good overview of their successes and failures.

This quilt, handmade by volunteers, was recently part of an art display on the lawn of the US Capitol, Memorial Blanket Project. Photo Diane Nilan

It’s About the Children

As a reminder, no one chooses to be homeless. Nor did anyone choose to be born into homelessness. It happens for a variety of reasons. Let me leave you with this sobering thought from my previous DBQ post:

Let me point out another little-known painful reality. Most adults living on the streets, or otherwise homeless, experienced homelessness as children, sometimes from infancy. In the process, they’ve likely experienced trauma which comes with a host of life-changing (not for the better unless they receive help) physical and mental health issues. People have reasons for not being able to function successfully. They need the kind of help that rarely can be found.

And let me commend you on “shared prosperity.” Now, take it from concept to reality!

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Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us