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Are Cities' Pledges to End Homelessness Working?

Though the number of homeless has increased since numerous pledges were made in the early 2000s to end it, some progress has been made on the nation's understanding of the phenomenon.

David Kidd
The title was audacious: A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years. When the National Alliance to End Homelessness released its report in 2000, there was an expectation that it could be done.

It wasn’t the only plan or promise out there. Throughout the early 2000s, similar pledges were being bandied about by various governmental entities, notes Rev. Chuck Currie, a minister in the United Church of Christ and a former board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Those pledges included a 2004 plan adopted by his home city of Portland, Ore., (in conjunction with Multnomah County) to “end homelessness by 2014.”

More recently, a promise came from a far more prominent level of government. In June 2010, President Obama unveiled his strategic plan to “prevent and end homelessness” by 2015.

And yet, 12 years after the first pledge of the 21st century was made, homelessness in the United States has not ended. By all accounts, it has moved steadily upward in the past decade to about 750,000 this year, according to the best available numbers (Dec. 10, 2012 Update: The latest federal data estimates the number of homeless to be 633,000). Moving the bulk of the nation’s homeless population into relative independence doesn’t look like it is going to happen anytime soon.

That’s not to say there won’t be progress. But there is a big difference between the progress and the promise. Currie says it is a bad idea to pledge to end a problem as complicated and endemic as homelessness. “When we make these promises and then don’t succeed,” he says, “all it’s saying is that government has failed again.” But his skepticism runs deeper. He sees no political will to follow through on such declarations. The president’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget does call for an increase in spending on key programs to fight homelessness, but it’s not enough, Currie says. “We’re moving in the right direction, but not at the right pace.”

It would be easy to blame the Great Recession for the failure. Millions lost their jobs and thousands saw their homes foreclosed on, thereby putting many of them out on the streets. But the whole subject of ending homelessness is much more complicated than that. It is bound up in a web of forces that reach into the deepest causes of poverty and issues about human behavior. Homelessness is an issue that encompasses medical health, mental health and substance abuse. It’s also an education and job training concern, as well as a criminal justice matter and a housing problem. It touches on family planning and family stability, and on big city, suburban and rural questions. There are moral and political issues as well as budget and policy concerns, all with a huge economic overlay.

Ending homelessness, Currie says, will take a massive push on curbing poverty -- including not only creating jobs, but also preparing workers for those jobs -- and on making huge investments in affordable housing and building up programs for in-home support of the elderly, those with physical disabilities and those suffering from other health, mental health and addiction problems.

The seemingly overblown rhetoric about ending homelessness, therefore, might sound like little more than hopeful cheerleading. Yet despite the apparent challenges, the country has made one significant step forward in just the last decade. A growing army of experts, activists and advocates have come together in a concerted effort to understand the phenomenon. Advocates and policymakers now know vastly more about who becomes homeless and why, how they can best be helped and how to prevent homelessness in the first place. New York City advocate Rosanne Haggerty, who has helped revolutionize tactics for getting the chronically homeless into permanent housing, puts it this way: “We’ve kind of cracked the code. It’s applying what we now know at the right scale that’s the hard part.”

Haggerty, who is president and founder of the nonprofit Common Ground, which comes at homelessness from both the housing and the treatment side, asserts that eight cities -- Columbus, Ohio; the District of Columbia; Fort Worth, Texas; Hartford, Conn.; Pittsburgh; Omaha, Neb.; Shreveport, La.; and Tulsa, Okla. -- are on a path to essentially ending homelessness in their metropolises in the not too distant future.

Salt Lake City is another such place pushing to reduce chronic homelessness to near zero. It is often cited by national experts and advocates as a model for its integrated, coordinated and sophisticated approach to reducing homelessness, and is therefore very likely to join the eight cities cited by Haggerty. As Mayor Ralph Becker admits, “There will always be some level of homelessness.” That said, he adds, “You can make enormous progress in helping homeless folks in your community, and that’s what we should be doing.”

Before 1970, homelessness wasn’t seen as a widespread social problem. The usual view was that homelessness was limited to large cities and that the vast majority of those living on the streets were drug-addicted or mentally ill men, some of whom preferred life under a highway overpass or on a steam grate to a cozy downtown apartment. That perception was strengthened as large-scale mental health deinstitutionalization efforts of the 1970s and 1980s turned more mentally ill patients out on the street.

That singular view began to change in the late 1980s, however, when people like Mark Johnston, currently deputy assistant secretary of Special Needs Programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), began to work on the problem. He’d first become intrigued by the issue when he stopped to talk to a group of homeless men attempting to warm themselves on a steam-shrouded grate on a freezing afternoon in Washington, D.C. He found himself caught up in a conversation about why they preferred to stay out in the cold rather go to a homeless shelter that had just opened nearby.

That discussion set him off on an investigation of the state of homelessness in the country. What he discovered was that there was not much known about the problem. There was no comprehensive, reliable national data on homelessness, nor had there been any sophisticated parsing of the different reasons why people might be homeless. And the reasons, he found, are key. They suggest the need for a wider variety of strategies for dealing with the problem than just temporary shelter, warm clothing giveaways and soup kitchens. The problem, policymakers and experts began to understand, might be vastly complicated, but it also just might be solvable given the right intelligence and attendant action.

One of the first major policy breakthroughs arrived with the Clinton administration. Andrew Cuomo, then-secretary of HUD, launched “continuum of care,” which eventually won an Innovations in American Government Award from the Ash Center at Harvard University. Continuum of care required that geographically designated areas (it could be a city, a region or a whole state) be created for the purposes of a more methodical and coordinated approach to dealing with homelessness. HUD grants would no longer go to individual service providers, but rather competitive grants would go to continuum of care consortia that presented the most cohesive and comprehensive plan to address all aspects of homelessness -- from substance abuse and health to housing and joblessness. The idea was to align efforts toward the goal of finding people permanent housing.

As federal policy evolved, an Interagency Council on Homelessness (which has numerous equivalents at the state level) was established to coordinate federal efforts. The council is made up of 19 departments and agencies, including the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and even the U.S. Postal Service.

Meanwhile, under the auspices of HUD, the separate continuums of care began collecting data on the homeless through a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), established in 2004. HMIS now includes more than 400 separate continuums reporting key data, including annual “point in time” counts of the homeless. That data, along with vast amounts of other information, are now reported to Congress in an Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), currently in its sixth iteration.

The report includes exhaustive and spectacularly disaggregated data. The information ranges from who is most at risk of homelessness, from kids aging out of foster care to families on the edge of deep poverty, to the role that temporary shelters, permanent supportive housing, and homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs play in helping to get individuals and families permanently settled.

As the country has improved its ability to count and track the homeless population, there is now greater clarity around how to significantly curb it and what the most effective ways are for dealing with different types of homelessness. For instance, there would be a very different way of dealing with a young adult who’s homeless because she’s aged out of foster care as opposed to meeting the needs of an infirm war veteran. Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, sums it up this way: “One size does not fit all.”

With this clarity has come the obvious challenge raised by activists like Rev. Chuck Currie: developing the political will necessary to muster and focus resources. To that end, two basic camps have emerged. These camps are by no means adversarial, nor do they even fundamentally disagree, but they are focusing on two separate strategies.

The first camp comprises advocates and policymakers who are focused on a coordinated, cohesive approach that directs resources to where they’ll do the most good. Elected officials like Mayor Becker credit a remarkable level of communication, cooperation and coordination as the key to why Salt Lake City is making substantial progress in reducing homelessness. In Salt Lake City, Becker reports, CEOs from Utah’s largest banks have been sitting down with leading homelessness advocates and other community and business leaders to use solid data to best allocate resources and make the biggest difference for long-range results. “To me,” Becker says, “that’s really exceptional.”

It’s that sort of cooperation and coordination, says Becker, that has allowed the city to make remarkable progress in getting the chronically homeless housed.

For example, a local bank in Salt Lake City helped homelessness advocates raise $1.7 million to help renovate 200 units of permanent supportive housing for individuals and families locked in chronic homelessness. That money -- along with corporate donations -- allowed the Road Home, a nonprofit homeless services group, to open the facility debt free, says Executive Director Matt Minkovich.

Numerous service providers, local landlords, housing authorities, and other state and local units of government also joined forces to develop almost 100 new units of scattered housing for the city’s chronically homeless. In the past six years another 300 housing units have been built to help Salt Lake City’s homeless.

Perhaps less flashy, but no less creative, downtown businesses have also worked with service providers and the police to implement a way to deal with panhandlers. Modeled on a Denver initiative, those who want to donate spare change to a homeless person can put the money in specially marked parking meters to support services for the homeless. The effort has helped the police back off formerly draconian approaches to dealing with panhandlers, says Minkovich.

Also in the coordinated approach camp are high-level state officials like Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tim Murray. Like Becker, Murray, Gov. Deval Patrick’s point person on the Bay State’s ambitious effort to end homelessness, sees contact in and among important state and local players in the public and private sector as key. “It’s a matter of getting everyone to go back to their mission statements,” he says. “We’re all here to help the homeless, not build empires, so it’s really a matter of getting people around the table and introducing each other and collaborating.”

The vehicle for that kind of cooperation in Massachusetts has been to divide the state into 10 regional networks. The networks bring together an assortment of government officials, nonprofit service providers, foundations, faith-based institutions and other community leaders. “Everyone gets to know one another,” Murray says. “That creates an atmosphere where you can pick up the phone and talk.”

One key benchmark of the effort’s success is the reduced number of homeless people being sheltered in hotels. Prior to implementing its housing first program and creating the regional networks, the state had a hotel population of between 1,200 and 1,700. The program brought that number down to 600. Since the economic downturn, it has gone back up to 1,400, but Murray argues that the number would be much higher were it not for the programs put in place to deal with the problem.

Rosanne Haggerty of New York’s Common Ground says that while progress is being made, services are still stuck in silos and many resources aren’t being expended strategically. For example, she cites how public housing is handled. “At most public housing authorities, need and process are really disconnected,” she says. “If there’s a waiting list, there’s a totally random lottery system to fill openings, even though there are people out there in desperate straits who might either die or remain trapped in a cycle of institutionalization.” That cycle, she says, is a problem from both a public health and a cost standpoint -- it’s hugely expensive. House the at-risk folks first, Haggerty argues, and then work your way down your waiting list based on actual circumstances and need, not luck of the draw.

In the second camp are those who come at homelessness from a more macroeconomic viewpoint. The best way to end homelessness is to end poverty, argues Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten, an organization devoted to cutting poverty in the U.S. in half by 2020.

Boteach and others like her are much more focused on issues like minimum wage, the earned income tax credit and child support credits, than on initiatives like getting the chronically homeless into permanent supportive housing. Their strategy has standing inasmuch as the population of homeless families in the U.S. has been going up at a faster rate than that of homeless individuals, according to the most recent AHAR report.

Arguably, though, Boteach’s approach is a much more difficult battle than focusing more narrowly on the chronically homeless. Half in Ten is taking on the daunting issues that are at the core of the Occupy Wall Street movement: income inequality and basic social equity and fairness.

Again, neither camp would take issue with the strategies or goals of the other. Each agrees that fewer silos, better intelligence and more coordination -- along with higher wages and affordable housing -- are key to ending homelessness. And of course, both camps want to see homelessness in America ended. Can the promises of 2000 come true? The most accurate assessment seems to be that they can, but absent major shifts in income distribution, substantial improvements in the economy and a significant push on education and job training, it will happen only in certain places and among specific homeless populations.

One of those populations is veterans. HUD and Veterans Affairs are now teaming up on efforts to end homelessness among vets by 2015. Even skeptics figure that this goal is achievable. After all, no politician in the U.S. wants to be accused of allowing U.S. veterans to live on the street. That means the political pressure is there to deploy the necessary resources to meet that goal.

As for the overall promise to end homelessness, that will always be controversial. Salt Lake City’s Becker is all for stating a commitment. “Setting goals makes a huge difference,” he says. “We can make enormous progress.” He likens the promise to one made by the federal government in the heyday of the early environmental movement. At that time, the pledge was that all waters in the U.S. would be made “fishable and swimmable.” Nobody took the promise literally, but the goal was clear and inspiring.

Rev. Currie, for his part, would still prefer a more low-key pledge. “My biggest frustration is how we label these efforts,” Currie says. “We need to be very careful in our use of rhetoric. We need to announce a new plan that we are subtly going to impact homelessness for a one-year period.” That way, he says, “progress can be measured, and people can see the results and not think that government has failed.”

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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