For more than two decades, communities across America have struggled with homelessness, one of our most vexing and complex social problems. When homelessness emerged as a widespread problem during the 1980s, the federal government responded by supporting a homeless-assistance system that focuses on homeless people’s immediate needs.
Despite this federal investment of more than $2 billion per year—and millions more from state and local government and the private sector—adults, youth, and families with children remain on our streets and in our shelters. The homeless-assistance system does a good job of providing for basic needs—shelter, food, clothing, and some services. It cannot, however, provide all of those who have a housing crisis with the thing they need the most—permanent housing. This year, approximately 3 million Americans will experience homelessness. After years of managing the problem, it is not surprising that most Americans believe homelessness will always exist, no matter what we do.
Given these challenges, making a commitment to end homelessness is momentous—something that takes leadership, innovation, and willingness to set ambitious, but achievable, goals. During the past five years, hundreds of communities have done just that—committed to ending homelessness by dramatically increasing their prevention efforts, improving the efficiency of their homeless assistance systems, and focusing much more closely on returning people to appropriate housing. They have done this in the context of plans to end homelessness, or end long-term homelessness, usually in a 10-year timeframe. Today, more than 200 communities have committed to create such plans, and nearly 100 have been written and adopted. Community plans have become a critical component of efforts to prevent, reduce, and end homelessness nationwide. Recently, the National Alliance to End Homelessness took a closer look at the plans. This article reports on what we learned.
We found that communities with plans entered the process by bringing together a wide range of community stakeholders from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. In addition to strong representation from the nonprofit sector, these stakeholders included some uncommon but necessary players, all whom have a role: public housing authorities, public health officials, corrections administrators, faith-based organizations, banks, and philanthropic organizations. A number of communities—Hartford, Conn.; King County, Wash.; Nashua, N.H.; and Austin, Texas, among them—asked homeless people and formerly homeless people for their valuable insight on how to solve the problem.
Each plan to end homelessness is a unique document that takes into consideration the needs of the local homeless population and the resources in the community to address the problem of homelessness. Although there is no cookie-cutter approach to ending homelessness, we found some common themes among the plans.
Preventing homelessness before it occurs
Preventing homelessness by providing emergency services is a critical strategy outlined in 79 percent of plans. Grand Rapids and Kent County, Mich., for example, in their joint plan, Vision to End Homelessness, call for funding a revolving pool for housing assistance intended to resolve minor rent mortgage, or utility assistance delinquencies; and funding for landlord and tenant education programs. These programs aim to prevent eviction and help households maintain their housing. Preventing people who are exiting systems—including corrections facilities, child welfare, jails, and hospitals—from being “discharged” into homelessness is an equally important prevention measure. Almost all of the plans (91 percent) outline systems prevention activities, including discharge and housing planning and transitional services.
Shortening time people spend homeless
Shortening the length of time people are homeless not only improves their lives, but reduces the demand for shelter beds, making more resources available for housing. A little more than half of the plans identify strategies to shorten homelessness, and two-thirds call for adopting a “Housing First” approach to respond to homelessness. Housing First is a set of interventions designed to help people transition more rapidly out of the shelter system; it includes crisis intervention, rapid re-housing, and follow-up case management. Portland, Ore.’s, plan, Home Again, calls for adopting a Housing First approach that helps homeless people rapidly access housing, and then, if needed, provides services. According to the plan, at present only 27 percent of the city’s homeless population eventually accesses permanent housing. Portland’s goal is to increase that percentage to 40 percent of homeless people moving into permanent housing within three years; by 2012 the goal is 60 percent.
Providing permanent housing
By definition, housing ends homelessness. Helping homeless people both afford housing and stay housed is critical. This means increasing the stock of affordable housing. Taken together, the plans call for creating or subsidizing about 196,000 affordable housing units; 80,000 of these would be permanent supportive housing units for the hardest-to-house disabled people. The Blueprint to End Chronic Homelessness in the Chattanooga, Tenn., region calls for creating 1,400 affordable housing units for homeless people over the next 10 years. According to the plan, Chattanooga will draw on several sources to make the units available, including increasing Sec. 8 vouchers available to homeless people, developing a local time-limited subsidy program, preserving existing rental stock by implementing one-for-one replacement polices for apartments leaving the market, and creating new units with dollars from the low-income housing tax credit, HOME, and Community Development Block Grant programs.
Links to services
Services are also a critical part of ending homelessness and are often most effectively provided after people are housed. A Way Home, Broward County, Fla.’s plan to end homelessness, calls for more treatment and services through accessing detoxification and mental-health crisis stabilization for people who are homeless. The plan will increase contracted services for homeless beds at detox and mental health facilities. Not all homeless people need intensive services; some just need the same help other low-income households require. This is why linking homeless people to existing mainstream services is as important as creating new services. In Spokane, Wash., the Spokane Regional 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness is one example of a plan that outlines strategies to improve mainstream-services delivery to homeless adults, families, and youth. Specifically, the plan identifies steps to increase access to Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, General Assistance, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families by training case managers in expedited enrollment procedures and providing technical assistance on navigating different systems.
Our analysis shows that the plans are outlining the right strategies and are moving in the right direction. For the first time in two decades, homelessness is a problem with a clearly defined solution, mapped out by hundreds of plans across the country. The next challenge is for communities to move from planning to implementation.
However, implementation brings hard questions. Only 48 percent of plans identify funding sources, and 54 percent identify a body that will take up responsibility for plan implementation once the plan is completed. Who will pay for plan strategies? Who is responsible for overseeing the work of a community plan? How will we know if plans are successful? These are just some of the questions communities should be building into their plans by identifying funding sources, implementation bodies, numeric goals, and timelines.
Plan implementation is a daunting task, but it is possible. A few communities, pioneers who accepted the challenge of ending homelessness early, are starting to show promising results. Among them:
- San Francisco reduced chronic homelessness by 28 percent;
- Columbus, Ohio, shrank family homelessness by 46 percent;
- New York City cut homelessness in targeted neighborhoods by 9 percent;
- Westchester County, N.Y., lowered homelessness 70 percent from its peak;
- Hennepin County, Minn., lessened homelessness among children 28 percent and among families 43 percent, and reduced shelter usage by 77 percent.
Holding onto these reductions, and helping the communities that are just beginning to implement plans, will require that communities collect data, monitor their goals closely, and target resources to strategies that are most successful and cost-effective.
To read the full report, A New Vision: What is in Community Plans to End Homelessness? or our plan, A Plan Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years, visit www.endhomelessness.org.
Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is a leading national voice on the issue of homelessness. The alliance is a public education, advocacy, and capacity-building organization with a network of more than 5,000 nonprofit and public-sector agencies and corporate partners around the country. Under Roman’s leadership, the alliance has developed a pragmatic plan to end homelessness within 10 years. To implement this plan, she works closely with members of Congress and the Bush administration, as well as with cities and states across the nation.