After beginning his career as a street outreach worker, Jeff Olivet has become executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), the only federal agency with the sole mission of preventing and ending homelessness.

Jeff Olivet

He steps into the role at a time when approximately half a million people are homeless in America, and there’s concern that the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic upheaval, and rising housing costs remains to be seen. Olivet and the council, made up of leaders from 19 federal agencies, are charged with coming up with solutions.

Affordable Housing Finance recently caught up with Olivet to learn more about him and his plans at USICH.

How did you get started working on homelessness issues?

Most of us don’t grow up saying I’m going to fight homelessness. The work finds us often. For me, I started working many years ago in street outreach and case management. I was a case manager in the context of a supportive housing program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was a member of an outreach team through the Health Care for the Homeless project there. Coming at this from the housing side and the health and behavioral health side was fundamental in my early development many years ago.

Most of us don’t grow up saying I’m going to fight homelessness. The work finds us often.

From there, I found my way into national advocacy and policy work and research, trying to be part of bigger picture solutions. I’m so appreciative of the folks who are doing the hard work of local housing development and local direct services. We need that. And, we need folks who are positioned to zoom back out and create more systemic solutions. I’ve had the fortune of being in both roles, local and national, direct service and big picture policy.

What is your top priority at USICH this year?

Very pragmatically in the short term we have a federal strategic plan to develop. We’re working on a federal strategic plan to end homelessness that we will issue later this year. That plan will set the course for this administration’s push on homelessness the next few years and hopefully have ripple effects nationally as well.

There’s amazing work going on within the federal government and certainly at the local and state levels. Trying to coordinate that into a coherent response that’s comprehensive, that’s thoughtful, that’s beginning-to-end upstream prevention paired with crisis response, paired with permanent housing solutions with wraparound services, that kind of continuum is where my focus is. Within that, I hope to leave a mark around racial equity, and I hope to leave a mark around prevention. Racially equitable understanding of homelessness and responses to homelessness have not been our norm for many decades. … The reality is that people of color experience homelessness at much higher rates than their white counterparts. That’s not to say there’s no white homelessness. Of course, there is. We know that African-Americans and Native Americans, in particular, experience extremely high rates of homelessness and housing instability; so do Latino communities and so do some segments of the Asian-American community, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. Unless we are willing to have a courageous conversation about that and come up with equitable solutions, then we’re missing both part of the analysis and part of the fix.

Are you a believer in the Housing First approach?

I believe strongly in Housing First. I was in the field working on supportive housing before Housing First was in use really, as it was being developed in the ’90s, before it was widely embraced as an effective solution. I saw what happened when we tried to put up prerequisite requirements for housing around sobriety, around mental health access, getting and keeping a job. What we were doing wasn’t working. I would be very troubled if we tried to go back and do what wasn’t working 25 years ago. I think a lot of the backlash against Housing First now is misplaced. Part of the analysis seems to be we’ve been doing Housing First for a while and we still have homelessness therefore Housing First doesn’t work. I don’t believe that to be true at all. I think there are a couple of issues. One, we have not scaled it to meet the need. That’s one issue. Another is there is no one-size-fits-all end to homelessness. Housing First is one of several tools we need in the toolbox. It’s not the only one.

I would be very troubled if we tried to go back and do what wasn’t working 25 years ago.

There’s also sometimes a misinterpretation that Housing First means housing only, just stick people into an apartment and hope it goes well. That’s not the model. If a community is doing Housing First with real fidelity to what the research has shown to work, there is ready availability of wraparound services and supports. There are assertive community treatment teams. There are critical time intervention teams. There’s access to mental health care, substance-use treatment, job training, and everything else. If you try to do Housing First without those wraparound services, it’s going to fail for a lot of people. A lot of it is what are we calling Housing First. What do we mean when we say that? What I mean is both the evidence-based intervention with two decades of research behind it showing that it works, showing that it achieves great housing retention rates and much better outcomes on many fronts, and, two, a philosophical belief that housing should be a basic human right and that housing is the stable foundation from which all those other good things can happen. If we’re trying to ask people who are living in an encampment or on the street or in their vehicle or in a shelter to just get sober, or just address your trauma and mental health, it’s impossible to do in that unstable context. We have to stabilize people in housing first so that they can attend to those other issues they might be facing.

Are any new strategies emerging?

One important one is an increased focus on racial equity. We’re seeing communities around the country really begin to think about how to create a more equitable homelessness response system and more equitable distribution of housing resources. I’m not sure any communities are there, yet. I don’t think they’ve arrived, but I think they’ve begun the process of implementing racial equity. It’s really promising. We’ll watch over the next several years if there are communities that are able to move the needle on racial disproportionality in homelessness.

Another new territory for all of us is upstream prevention. I don’t mean just eviction prevention at the point of crisis. I mean really identifying much earlier people who might be at risk of homelessness and trying to stem the tide of inflow into homelessness. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We know that young people aging out of foster care are at an incredibly high risk of homelessness. Many identify as LGBTQ. Nine out 10 are young people of color who actually become homeless. If we can figure out how to stem the tide at that moment of transition, it will have long-term positive effects on the individuals and on our society as a whole. Another point of transition is criminal justice reentry. If we can think about providing people stable housing at that point, it’s going to serve everyone better, too. That way we don’t have people exiting jail or prison and ending up on the streets or in the shelters. There are other systems we can look at. If we don’t get very serious about turning off the faucet, there’s no way we can bail out the bathtub fast enough. We’ve got to both do the things we know to work—Housing First, supportive services—and we’ve got to stem the inflow of folks into homelessness. I think we’re at the infancy of a real focus on homelessness prevention and a real focus on racial equity in the homelessness response.

Third is the idea of trauma-informed services. Many communities have gotten much better at understanding homelessness itself as a traumatic event in people’s lives but also the connection with previously experienced traumas, whether that’s domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, neglect for children, assault, being a victim of a crime. Loss of a loved one is a huge factor often in driving a downward spiral for people into homelessness. Understanding the connections between homelessness and trauma and then designing our programs in a way that is trauma-informed at a fundamental level is a field of conversation and practice that has evolved in a lot of ways over the last decade. That’s a promising direction as well.

What would you like to see affordable housing developers and communities do?

Keep going, and scale it up. What affordable housing developers do is so important. I get to see communities all over the country doing thoughtfully designed, well-financed developments. Often there are services integrated. They’re real thoughtful. It’s just not enough, so there’s a question of scale. … I think utilizing some of the recovery money to focus on homelessness [should be considered], to scale up the HOME ARP (American Rescue Plan) funds. It’s not on the development side, but making sure that the emergency housing vouchers are getting in the hands of those most in needs is another move. There are some immediate stuff that communities can do.

At the local level, zoning is important to pay attention to. More inclusionary zoning doesn’t necessarily translate into housing affordability across the board, but you can do things that open up greater emphasis on multifamily development. Density incentives and things like that can be helpful at the local level as well.