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Registering the Homeless

Once a system starts getting to know more about its homeless population, it's much easier to develop targeted, strategic interventions.

When I travel I often make it a point of getting up early in the morning and going for a walk, whether it's in San Francisco, Denver, Montgomery, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., or any of the other dozens of cities I happen to visit in the course of my regular travels for Governing.

One of the things that I tend to notice most is the number of homeless people you see curled up in doorways, on benches, under bridges, in any spot that provides them with a modicum of cover.

I've always viewed the number of homeless as something of a barometer of civic health and capacity. Sidewalks and public parks strewn with inert human bodies, I reason, can't be good for a city, and also has to be a sign of a human services system that's either stressed out or that's just not dealing well with a very public problem.

I will sometimes stop and look, just to see if I can decipher any sign of life. But what I certainly would never do is shake any homeless person awake and ask them who they are, how they're doing and whether they need help.

But that's exactly what is happening in more than 60 communities across the nation with the launch of an ambitious and smart new initiative aimed at housing 100,000-plus vulnerable homeless. The 100,000 Homes Campaign, which was launched by Common Ground, a group dedicated to ending homelessness, is a targeted and aggressive "housing first" approach to homelessness that seeks out the most troubled and vulnerable individuals and families on the streets and works to get them into stable, permanent housing with support.

The campaign was conceived by Rosanne Haggerty, Common Ground's president and founder, and the person largely credited with solving what had been a terrible homelessness problem in New York City's Times Square.

Haggerty's approach to homelessness is refreshingly straightforward and pragmatic. What you have to do, she says, is figure out who the homeless are, which involves getting teams of people to go out early in the morning and "register" the homeless. In other words, they get their names, photos and medical histories, and form relationships with folks in order to get them off the streets and into permanent housing. They do that with no preconditions, like requiring individuals to be off drugs or alcohol before they can be placed in their own living unit.

Haggerty says that many believe we don't invest the necessary funds to house and treat the homeless, but "it's not about the amount of money so much as it is about spending it in the right place," she says. "So much money in communities is spent shuffling people from the streets, to homeless shelters, to jails, to hospital emergency rooms. Many of us in the field who have a research and data orientation looked at this as a classic problem of a broken and disorganized system."

Obviously, it has something to do with resources, says Haggerty, but mostly it's about strategy. That strategy includes the registry.

"It's a very organized approach," she says. "We've found that more than 85 percent of homeless individuals will do things like sign a release agreeing to share their health history with providers." Once a system starts getting to know more about its homeless population, it's much easier to develop targeted, strategic interventions.

In Washington, D.C., for example, Laura Green Zeilinger, who is spearheading the homeless reduction effort for the city's Department of Human Services, says the Common Ground strategy is having a significant impact on the city's homeless population. The city is using the registry approach to document homeless individuals and families, and help move hundreds of them off the street and into housing. "One of biggest successes has been our work with the Veterans Administration. We went to the local VA medical center and told them we have registered 590 veterans who are homeless, we know who they are and we know where they stay most nights." With the VA's support, Zeilinger's agency has been able to move hundreds of those veterans into permanent housing.

Among the other triumphs of the District's effort: breaking down a public housing bureaucracy that took the homeless through a six-month process before placing them in a home. "People with mental health issues, who would never make it through that long of a process, are now getting housing within 10 days to two weeks," says Zeilinger.

Again, it's about breaking out of old ways of thinking and doing business, says Haggerty. "It's about identifying and helping the most vulnerable," she says. "It's not that nameless guy who panhandles on the corner. That's Joe, and he's got cancer and he has been chronically homeless for 17 years."

Chances are, says Haggerty, armed with that kind of knowledge, it's highly likely that officials and service providers can build a coherent support strategy around getting him the kind of help that will get him off the street.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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