Courtesy U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness

LAURA GREEN ZEILINGER is executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), based in Washington, D.C. She was appointed to the post in February after serving as USICH’s deputy director, managing the implementation of Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, an effort that includes coordinating homelessness policies among 19 federal departments and agencies as well as partnering with state and local communities.

What’s the latest on the Opening Doors initiative?

Simply put, Opening Doors is working to change the trajectory of homelessness in America. Between 2010–2013, homelessness fell 6 percent overall in the U.S., including a 7 percent decrease in the number of families experiencing homelessness, a 16 percent decrease in chronic homelessness, and a 24 percent reduction in homelessness among veterans. In just one year, from 2012 to 2013, we saw an 11 percent reduction in unsheltered homelessness. We are primed to reach our goal of ending homelessness among veterans in 2015, and if Congress fully funds President Obama’s 2015 budget request for $301 million to create 37,000 new units of permanent supportive housing, we can end chronic homelessness in 2016.

Please share a fact or statistic about homelessness to think about.

Here are a few that are important to know: 1) Homelessness is not an intractable problem; it is a problem we know how to solve. 2) Ending homelessness is actually much cheaper than doing nothing. One person experiencing chronic homelessness can cost communities $30,000 to $50,000 per year in emergency-room visits, hospitalizations, prisons, psychiatric centers, detox programs, and other costly services, while connecting someone to permanent housing with the services needed to support health and stability costs only about $20,000 annually. 3) Approximately 20 percent of people who experience homelessness on a given night are children between ages 1 and 5.

What local strategy is giving you the most hope?

Housing First is not only giving me hope, it’s giving hope to people who are looking for a safe, stable place to call home.

Housing First is an approach to meeting the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness by immediately connecting that person or family to housing, first. It’s about eliminating programmatic barriers to housing. It may seem straightforward enough—after all, homes solve homelessness—but for too long, programs and providers have been working under the assumption that a person should be “ready” for housing before given the opportunity to attain housing—such as requiring demonstrated sobriety and/or income. To me, the only metric that should inform whether someone is ready for housing is whether someone needs housing.

If you could have access to any expert to get advice, who would it be?

This is very hard to narrow to just one person. That said, I’d love to seek the advice of Geoffrey Canada, because I’m a huge fan of his work with the Harlem Children’s Zone. I see him as a pioneer in social justice. I would talk with him about applying what he has learned about addressing complex social issues, using data to drive results, and addressing cycles of poverty—all of which are intersected with efforts to prevent and end homelessness.