December 27, 2015; Washington Post

There are probably few things that risk being more polarizing than the decision of a Denver nonprofit to give out free joints to the homeless over the holiday season. The group, Cannabis Can, has a mission to mobilize people through marijuana advocacy to create a more inclusive society. And they reckoned, rightly so, that the event would bring publicity to the plight of the homeless in Denver, Colorado, where the group has started a $10,000 GoFundMe campaign for its work with homeless individuals.

A compelling video on the group’s website gives voice to two homeless citizens, both of whom sympathetically articulate their experiences. One, a veteran, notes that one of the biggest challenges is navigating the daily grind of finding food and merely surviving. As he puts it, “The support that we get keeps us alive, but it doesn’t really do much else. The drudgery of being homeless almost keeps you homeless once you have no resources to get out of that situation.”

Shockingly, conservative talk radio and television pundits have not jumped on this story, but the argument against doling out free weed is not an altogether unreasonable one. Walking by the homeless lined up against New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal on any day of the week, one sees the ravages of heroin’s hold on so many individuals who have made the streets their home. And as a parent, it is heartbreakingly sad to look at the faces of so many young people who, whether through drugs, mental illness, rotten luck, or terrible choices, sit abandoned and alone. It’s hard to justify on moral grounds giving drugs to a population so particularly vulnerable to addiction.

On the other hand, many who work in the field would argue that in the grand scheme of things, there are so many issues inherent in a discussion around homelessness that fretting about a free joint should be the least of anyone’s concerns. And, the provocative awareness campaign notwithstanding, Cannabis Can itself acknowledges the importance of treatment programs for many individuals living on the streets. They also ask some important questions in their self-described “guerilla effort,” such as the biggest difficulties for homeless people on a daily basis, and which programs, whether publicly or privately funded, are actually making the greatest impact.

Overall in this country, there is no shortage of anecdotal accounts of increases in demand for shelter beds, food, and meals for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. For a number of reasons tracking exact numbers is difficult, but a 2013 survey of the Conference of Mayors found that 83 percent of the cities surveyed were experiencing a year-to-year increase in demand for emergency food, with 91 percent reporting an increase in persons requesting food assistance for the first time. And close to 80 percent of the cities had to reduce the number of times a person could visit a food pantry each month or turn people away altogether.

The National Coalition for the Homeless published a report last year highlighting the trend by cities across the country to, in their words, “criminalize” homelessness and, through legislation, severely limit or ban the ability of individuals and community organizations to donate food (which 31 cities have done or are in process of doing). Challenging trends that they argue punish the very individuals that safety net programs are designed to help, the Coalition recommends directing more homeless individuals to federal nutrition programs through increased outreach, expanding federal funding for nutrition services, and educating local populations about homelessness to mitigate the problems of “NIMBY-ism,” when communities work to bar homeless and other emergency-related services within the confines of their neighborhoods.

Events like giving away free joints to the homeless may not be the most effective or consensus-building in the long run, but by drawing attention to a small, important local need, it requires us to consider the bigger picture. What are the systemic and historical factors that have contributed to homelessness? What about the shift in populations moving out of (and now into) inner cities? What role did the appeal of suburbs and exurbs play in contributing to the subprime disaster and consequent housing bubble? Do we need to examine structural barriers, like the siting of shelters far from centers of employment, schools and shopping, and the slow decline of decent public transportation?

While it’s not as interesting to read about innovators like Sam Tsemberis, who came up with a model giving homes to the homeless without any preconditions (“housing first”), according to some experts, he’s “all but solved chronic homelessness” (a conclusion borne out by a federal study testing the model across 11 cities). And while articles like Chico Harlan’s recent investigative piece in the Washington Post offer a fascinating glimpse into the intersection between unemployment, homelessness and transportation, people aren’t as compelled to go out of their way to learn about, say, transit oriented development. And if a subject such as workforce housing is broached, homeowners and community residents will swiftly mobilize (and not necessarily to support it).

It’s at these critical intersections that good policy makers, elected officials and nonprofit and civic leaders can lead the way, learning about and offering up information and solutions that, in the long run, can benefit individuals and families from across the spectrum. But it will take leadership at every level, or a lot of very good ideas will continue to just go up in smoke.—Patricia Schaefer