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As we approach the fiscal cliff, there is a common misperception that, since Congress exempted all programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from sequestration in the Budget Control Act of 2011, programs that assist low-income and homeless veterans are safe from spending cuts. That’s not quite true.
Low-income and homeless veterans receive a lot of assistance from HUD funded programs as well as from VA, which means cuts to domestic discretionary spending under sequestration would have serious consequences for the most vulnerable of them. This budgetary impasse has the potential to undo our historic progress toward ending veteran homelessness (a 17.2 percent reduction since 2009).
On Thursday, December 6, the Alliance and its partners took this message to the senate, at a congressional hearing, “Discretionary Budget Cuts: Impact on Veterans,” which was hosted by the Homeless Veterans National Advocacy Working Group.
We were joined by Jonathan Harwitz, Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Programs, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who you can see in this video explaining how important the interagency collaboration between HUD and VA has been to reducing the number of homeless veterans, (down 7 percent from last year) and how cuts to discretionary domestic spending threaten their efforts.
Also on the panel was Michael DeHart, the Housing Coordinator for Community Connections, a HUD-funded assistance services provider that serves veterans. He spoke about the clients that his program serves, and elaborated on the real human cost of the spending cuts.
A client of Community Connections and a formerly homeless, Shauna Curley, bravely shared her moving story, and described how DeHart’s program helped her and her children get back on their feet.
Lastly, Doug Rice, a Senior Policy Analyst from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, spoke about the realities of the budgetary impasse, describing where the spending cuts will be made and explaining that a deal to avert sequestration might also to spending cuts that could hurt low-income and homeless veterans.
With elections nearly a month behind us, advocates are honing strategies to approach leaders and legislatures, new and old. With so much focus on federal budget and policy, it’s easy to overlook that all but half a dozen state legislatures will be in session by the time President Obama is inaugurated for a second term. At that time, state legislators will already be addressing budgetary issues and health care reform, two factors that will play huge roles in homelessness assistance next year.
A lot of the action on the issue of homelessness will be taking place in state capitals, and advocates can learn more about how to get involved on Tuesday, December 18, at 3 p.m. ET, when the Alliance hosts a live webinar, “Strategies to End Chronic Homelessness: Pursuing Innovative Policies at the State Level.” Field experts will show you and your community partners how to can make the most of new opportunities in your state. You can register for the webinar here.
The political landscape in the states has shifted a bit since the 2012 elections. So advocates in these 50 separate arenas must tailor their approaches in light of the election results in their states. Five new governors will assume office in 2013, but only in North Carolina did the gubernatorial seat change party hands. Party control shifted in just four states (Arkansas, Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire), and a handful of state legislatures are nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.
Homelessness advocates are going to have to involve themselves in what’s happening in their state legislatures, and that means keeping track of the activities of leaders, lobbyists and grassroots organizations, and answering questions like, “Is the issue of homelessness on the state agenda? Are the leaders even interested in addressing homelessness? Do we as state advocates have the kind of access to leaders and influence that we need to affect state policies?
Every state is different, but here are a few points worth noting, from a national vantage. First the bad news:
- As in the federal arena, programs require funding, so a lot of the big state policy decisions will be made during the budget debate. Unlike the federal government, however, many states are required by their constitutions to balance their annual budgets, which means more pressure to get the bottom line right year to year. Legislators may be tempted to skimp on state funding for housing and assistance in the expectation that federal programs and local coffers will make up the difference.
- Though the economy is improving, states continue to feel the effects of the recession. Many states last year had to contend with shortfalls in state revenues, and they made up for the shortfalls with spending cuts. Again, the openings for advocates to propose and enact new policies – even cost-effective ones – are few and far between.
Now, the good news:
- For people working to end chronic homelessness, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will present real opportunities as it moves to the states. In the next two years, a number of states (hard to know how many) will expand their Medicaid programs to cover many homeless adults who have gone without health insurance, for years or perhaps their entire lives.
- A number of states will choose still other options under the ACA – such as Medicaid health homes – that will add capacity to the systems of care for chronically homeless people.
The Alliance’s policy team has been thinking about new ways to help our advocates affect state policymaking, particularly with regard to identifying and making the most of ACA opportunities. This fall, we reached out with an online survey to learn what issues are most pressing in the coming year when combatting chronic homelessness. Respondents from 32 states answered the call, and identified four relevant policy topics:
- Funding for state mental health programs that offer supportive housing;
- Expansion of Medicaid to cover all adults up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level;
- Policy decisions to increase Medicaid coverage for behavioral health care; and
- Funding for state programs to help people exiting jails and prisons.
We also learned that there is a nearly unanimous need for state-level strategies and tactics for addressing these challenges, with state advocates citing “data” as the primary tool that they lack
The Alliance has already begun to respond to these needs, with Alliance tools and materials and by connecting people with outside experts and resources. Now is the time for homeless advocates and their partners to define their role for 2013 in their states.
Here are some basic steps to get started:
- Know your key statewide coalitions and make sure they know you.
- Stay current on state legislative affairs – through your state representatives, local news sources and opinion-leaders, and state think tanks. Understand the big picture.
- Prep your champions and spokespersons– are their messages up-to-date and relevant?
- Have an “ask” for your state legislators that will engage them in your most important issues – whether it’s funding for behavioral health, public investment in supportive housing, or reporting of data needed to advance state solutions.
- Build relationships for the long-term. Keep up with your contacts working in state policy settings, and inform them about your issues and your goals
The Alliance’s Economic Development Policy Fellow, Edward J. SanFilippo, contributed to this blog post.
As the founder of the consulting firm Asset Building Strategies (ABS), Heather McCulloch, notes in her primer “Asset Building 101,” “Income enables families to get by. Assets enable them to weather financial crises, invest in their children and their community, plan for a secure retirement, and pass resources on to future generations.”
Assets, as you probably already know, can be anything from cash savings to home equity, and as you probably also know, it’s really important for your financial health to have them. But it might seem strange to talk about asset building for people who are experiencing homelessness or who are at risk of falling into homelessness, as they tend to have few, if any, assets.
Nonetheless, in many instances asset building can be an effective tool for preventing or shortening the length of an episode of homelessness. That’s because of the opportunities that assets provide for banking, for business and for home ownership.
Asset building can serve as an effective intervention:
- When someone’s inadequate financial literacy (poor budgeting or a poor understanding of credit and financial instruments) leads to an episode of homelessness; and
- When someone is unable to open bank accounts due to poor credit and/or a lack of a physical address (a situation that could worsen if the individual must resort to costly check-cashing venues for financial transactions).
Obviously, that’s far from an exhaustive list. There are many other of cases in which asset building can come in handy, and you can learn about them on Wednesday, December 5, when the National Alliance to End Homelessness hosts, “Asset Building and Financial Literacy for Populations Experiencing Homelessness.”
This webinar will explore how Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, two members of a coalition of municipal governments committed to improving the financial health of their residents (Cities for Financial Empowerment), are working to incorporate asset building and financial literacy components into their homeless service delivery systems.
The webinar also will cover policy recommendations by the CFED (Corporation for Enterprise Development)for more effectively integrating these initiatives into service delivery.
Speakers will include:
- Tina Lentz, Executive Administrator of Louisville Metro Community Services and Revitalization;
- Jerry DeGrieck, Senior Policy Advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn; and
- Edward SanFilippo, Economic Development Policy Fellow at NAEH.
Please consider participating in the webinar on Wednesday. You can register here.
Image courtesy of www.sweetclipart.com.
Recently, I had the privilege of visiting Seattle, the city that will be playing host to the Alliance’s more than 800 attendees during our 2013 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness this February.
As the Alliance’s Director of Meetings and Events, I always visit the host venue for each of our conferences two to three months in advance to get a feel for the space as it relates to our conference schedule, and to choose conference menus and get a general lay of the land.
I hadn’t ever been to Seattle, but I wasn’t shocked to be welcomed by a few rainclouds upon my arrival at Sea-Tac airport. The clouds broke shortly after I made it downtown, however, and I enjoyed sunshine the rest of the day. Here’s hoping we are so lucky in February!
The first thing on my agenda at the hotel was the tasting. I have helped mount a number of the Alliance’s conferences, so I have a pretty good idea what kind of menu items are popular. I always keep our attendees’ preferences in mind (in addition to the Alliance’s budget) when I choose items for the tasting menu.
At the tasting, I was joined by the hotel convention services manager and the hotel chef, who described the menu items – their ingredients, how they’re prepared, etc. – and answered my questions about the food.
I had a chance to sample a bit from each dish on the tasting menu: three first courses, six second courses and three deserts! This is probably the most difficult part of my job here at the Alliance, mostly due to the fact that I need to be rolled out after the meeting.
After the tasting, I chose the conference menus, discussing with the hotel chef various dish modifications to ensure that they’re just right for our attendees. I hope you all like what I chose this year!
Afterwards, the convention services manager and I moved on to the walkthrough, which is a tour of all the spaces in the hotel where our event will be held: the main ballroom, the breakout rooms, our staff office, the meeting foyers, and other spaces.
The walkthrough is extremely important, as it gives me a chance to discuss with the convention services manager how each room should be set, where we want to place certain sessions, information tables, registration, etc. The goal is to ensure it’s as convenient for our group and our schedule as possible.
This may sound simple, but really it is incredible how helpful walking through the space with a firm event schedule in mind is. The process allows you to visualize everything coming together; it’s the last piece of the puzzle.
After the walkthrough, I took a field trip to the campus of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to see where the foundation will be hosting our conference reception.
The trip over to Gates alone was an adventure itself! There is a Seattle Monorail station located just blocks from the conference hotel, and it dropped me only a couple short blocks from the Gates Foundation campus.
The monorail ride took me past the Experience Music Project Museum, which was designed by famous architect Frank O. Gehry. It’s quite the spectacle. Upon exiting the monorail station at my destination I came within steps of the Seattle Space Needle, one of the biggest Seattle tourist attractions. Just peaking at it from afar was pretty neat.
At the Gates Foundation, I was amazed by the cutting-edge, floor-to-ceiling, LEED-certified building, where our reception will take place. Gates is excited to host us and we are grateful to them for inviting all of us to join them in February for what is sure to be a delightful occasion.
That concludes my brief visit to Seattle. It was informative and exciting. I hope that you have a chance to get to Seattle this February for our conference and to see the few sites I was able to take in, as well as the ones I missed (there are quite a few!). If you have not yet registered, make sure to register today!
As soon as the elections were over (literally, the next day), the nation turned its attention to the impending “Fiscal Cliff.” The fiscal cliff is a complicated amalgam of the immediate fiscal issues our nation faces – including debt, revenue, spending, and a few other things. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities does a much better job explaining it here.
One truly important thing to know about the fiscal cliff, though, is that it includes sequestration. Sequestration, as we’ve discussed on this blog before, is a fancy term for automatic, across-the-board cuts to non-defense, discretionary spending. Which, for our purposes, is a longer way of saying the fiscal cliff includes cuts to nearly all federally-funded affordable housing and homelessness programs, 8.2 percent in cuts that will take place on January 2, to be exact. These cuts would immediately impact thousands of our nations’ most vulnerable people, and their impact would eventually affect hundreds of thousands over the coming months.
In essence, sequestration is a policy that would go a long way toward walking back a lot of the great work we’ve seen in the past few years, work that has held back the tide of rising homelessness, and in many cases reversed it. Fortunately, though, we now have an opportunity to impact the congressional decision-making process and educate our Members of Congress on the importance of HUD programs in our community in preventing and ending homelessness.
That’s why we’ve made this week “National Sequestration Call-in Week!” We need advocates like you to call your Senators and Representatives! It’s time to explain how important federal funding is for ending homelessness, and warn your members of congress about the negative consequences sequestration cuts would have on your community. We have talking points to help guide your conversation and we can help with anything else you might need!
If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to ensure that people experiencing homelessness aren’t lost in the budgetary shuffle, cuts under sequestration to affordable housing and other programs targeted at low-income families and individuals could potentially create huge increases in homelessness in the coming months and years.
Call your Members. Tell them that cuts to HUD and other homeless assistance programs are unacceptable! Let me know who you contacted!
Two weeks or so out from the excitement of the election, it may seem that not much has changed in the grand scheme of things. Not so! Due to redistricting, retirement, resignation, and competitive races, there will be many new faces around Capitol Hill this January. Already last Tuesday, eighty or so members of the freshman class of the 113th Congress arrived on Capitol Hill for their New Member Orientation. With all those new Members and with committee selections to be finalized around February, we can expect a lot of new people will be occupying significant decision-making positions.
New Members will likely begin considering a wide array of issues and forming relationships with advocates early on. So, for advocates who want to help Members-elect better understand the issue of homelessness in their districts, the next few months will be a crucial time to pick up or begin the conversation around homelessness. With federal budget issues looming large and the new Congress set to take up federal spending issues soon after their swearing-in, we need to engage and educate these new Members on solutions to homelessness and the importance of making ending homelessness a federal priority.
Here are some effective approaches for educating or connecting with your new Member before they arrive in DC in January for their swearing in:
- Request a meeting with the Member before they begin their term. Often, you can find contact information for your new Member on their campaign’s website. Contacting a member of campaign staff through a general campaign email address or campaign phone number could be a simple but effective way of reaching your new Member.
- Write an Op-Ed in your local paper directed at your new Member. Call on the new Member to make ending homelessness a federal priority and a focus of their work in Congress. Explain what homelessness looks like in your community and what the Member-elect should do to support your programs and efforts. An Op-Ed will have the added benefit of reaching a wider audience and educating others in your community about homelessness locally.
- Send your new Member information about homelessness in your district. Sending a letter is an equally great way of opening the lines of communication and creating a dialogue around homelessness. Members will have a lot on their plates as soon as they arrive on the Hill, so make sure your letter is concise and offers data and a clear ask of your Member to focus on the issue of homelessness. Follow up on your letter when the Member has an established office in January.
- Reach out to your Member in early January. If you are unable to reach your Member-elect while they are still at home, consider reaching out to them in January. If the member hasn’t established a full staff yet, work with the member’s Chief of Staff to pass your message along on making ending homelessness a federal priority.
If you have any questions about these advocacy actions, just let us know and we’ll be happy to help you strategize and reach out! Finally, if you have a reason to believe that your newly-elected Member of Congress might be supportive of efforts to prevent and end homelessness, or if you have a connection to a new member or their campaign, please share the name of that member with us!
Elections always provide opportunities for change. The impact the results of this election will have on the issue of homelessness will depend on how successful those of us who care deeply about this issue are in educating our representatives and ensuring that they make ending it a priority. With change in the air and tough budgetary decisions ahead, there is truly no time like the present to advocate on the behalf of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Today’s federal post-election update was written by Kate Seif, the Alliance’s Policy Outreach Coordinator. The state post-election update was written by Lisa Stand, Senior Policy Analyst with the Alliance.
Eye on the Federal
President Obama won the election; the Republican Party maintained its majority in the House of Representatives; and the Democrats kept their majority in the Senate. It may look as though little has changed, but looks can be deceiving. Elections always mean change.
In Congress, both the House and Senate have a host of new members, while some long-term incumbents (and some new ones) have retired, resigned, or otherwise moved positions, paving the way for congressional committee reassignments and possible leadership changes. Many districts have been redrawn thanks to the decennial redistricting resulting from the Census, and that has left many constituents with new Representatives.
While the resident of the White House isn’t going anywhere, the 15 Executive Cabinet Members can (and often do) go elsewhere between terms. The same is true for a host of lower-level positions. No announcements on that front, so far, though.
The question we in the Alliance are asking is how will these changes impact homelessness? The short answer is that right now, just days after the election, we don’t know. During the run-up to the election there was a lot of talk about the need for bipartisanship, and about crossing the aisle and working together. If that kind of talk translates into action, we could see progress.
Federal movement around preventing and ending homelessness has a long history of bipartisan support, with members of both parties working together to make an impact. We hope to see more of that in the weeks and months to come.
Post-election, there is a lot more certainty about the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – and some clear direction for people working to end chronic homelessness in their communities. The health care reform law passed narrowly in 2010, with key provisions not intended to take effect in 2014. The lengthy lead time gave ACA opponents – among them candidate Mitt Romney – the opportunity to campaign to repeal it. With the ACA’s chief proponent Barack Obama now re-elected to a second term, the American public can expect the federal government to carry on with implementation.
Eye on the States
However, because of a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, debates about health care reform will continue in many states, and pick up pace as the 2014 implementation approaches. That is because the Supreme Court said that the decision to expand Medicaid as the ACA envisions is a state decision, not a matter of federal mandate. Though a number of states have fully embraced the ACA, not every state will immediately opt to expand its Medicaid program, even though the ACA offers generous subsidies to states to do so.
As homeless advocates well understand, the ACA on paper could extend Medicaid to virtually all chronically homeless people who do not already qualify for Medicaid disability. In fact, many people who are chronically homeless lack any health care coverage or a regular source of care for serious physical and behavioral health conditions. Local safety net programs are often burdened as a result – in the health care system as well as homeless assistance system. Clearly, by embracing the ACA and expanding Medicaid, states can boost the overall funding for those health care services in permanent supportive housing – the best approach to ending chronic homelessness.
At the same time that states consider their options for 2014, other ACA provisions are taking effect, as the law intended. One example is creation of person-centered health homes, which are already being implemented in some states. The health home benefit is a possible funding source for care coordination activities that help people stabilize in supportive housing. The Alliance recently published a policy brief about health homes, explaining how individual state decisions on this provision can best help drive solutions to chronic homelessness.
People working to end homelessness in their communities understand the importance of these and other relevant ACA provisions that fund services for vulnerable people and help safety net systems function more effectively. Now that so much of the ACA conversation is moving to states, it is critical, from a homeless services perspective, to engage and inform mainstream efforts to change Medicaid in states.
With state elected leadership now settled, policymakers are looking at 2013 state budget strategies, as well as actions needed to take advantage of health care reform. As states respond to ACA opportunities, community-based strategies to address chronic homelessness should be highlighted. Messages should convey the opportunities for supportive housing to help stretch the public dollars spent on vulnerable populations.
One first step is to educate new leaders and remind incumbents about the connections between homelessness and the high costs of providing health care to vulnerable people, and to suggest specifically what communities need from innovation in Medicaid and other state health care programs.
As Congress reconvenes to deal with the Fiscal Cliff and Washington gets back to work, the changes and issues that lie ahead will further emerge. The Alliance will, of course, continue to keep our readers posted on these issues and how they might impact the great work and progress being made on the ground.
Alliance and CEO Nan Roman delivered the following remarks at the Common Ground Alliance/Council of Homeless Persons Pre-conference Convening on in Melbourne, Australia on Wednesday, September 5, 2012. (For our American readers, in Australia permanent supportive housing is referred to as “common ground housing.”)
Ending Long Term Homelessness: Taking Permanent Supportive Housing to Scale
Thank you to the Common Ground Alliance and Felicity Reynolds and the Council of Homeless Persons and Jenny Smith for holding this forum and for inviting me to join you today. When I first came to Australia in 2007, permanent supportive housing and Common Ground housing were quite a new idea, at least by those names. Certainly there were people like Bryan Lippman at Wintringham here in Melbourne who were already doing it – combining housing and services. But it wasn’t the norm; it was not a well-established intervention. Now, as heard this morning, there are quite a few models. That is good, as a variety of models are needed.
But the next step, as the title of this session indicates, is going to scale – moving from the occasional permanent supportive housing program to an adequate supply of permanent supportive housing to meet the need and end homelessness among people with chronic disabilities.
We have not gone to scale on permanent supportive housing in the U.S., but we have certainly ramped up. There are currently nearly 200,000 units of permanent supportive housing in operation. So we have some experiences to share – some good and some bad – that may be relevant here in Australia. Let me start with a few definitions and a little history of permanent supportive housing and why it became such a big thing in the U.S.
In the U.S. you know that we define homeless as people living on the streets, etc. or in programs – not people doubled up or in poor accommodation. When homelessness first emerged in the 1980s, for a long time we thought that everyone who was homeless was a single adult male with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. This seemed an overwhelming problem with no clear solution.
Eventually we discovered, through data and research, that actually most people – 80 percent – who became homeless were homeless briefly and only once. There was a minority (the remaining 20 percent) who had the more serious problems of the stereotype – mental health and substance abuse – and who stayed homeless for long periods of time. This latter became known as the chronically homeless population. When Dr. Dennis Culhane did this typology in the mid-1990s, the size of the chronically homeless population was estimated to be about 250,000. So this new research changed the dynamic and the problem seemed more manageable.
In the earlier part of the twentieth century in the U.S., there was an abundance of what we call single room occupancy housing or hotels (SROs): over 2 million units by the 1960s. These units – though not the optimum as they were very small with shared facilities – nevertheless housed a tremendous number of very poor, often disabled single men, allowing them to pay by the night or week and providing a roof over their heads. Much of this SRO housing was lost between the 1960s and the 1980s, and it’s almost all gone today; which some think can, in and of itself, explain much of the growth of homelessness among single men. But by the 1980s some urban pioneers in New York, Oregon, and elsewhere began to rehabilitate these decrepit SROs into much more decent housing and enrich them with services for the often disabled tenants living in the neighborhoods where they remained. This was the precursor to permanent supportive housing.
Fairly quickly a few national leaders, like the Alliance, the fledgling Corporation for Supportive Housing, and a high ranking housing official in the Bush Republican Administration, saw the potential in this. Clearly it made more sense to provide these vulnerable people with housing than with shelter. A long story follows, but the bottom line is that over time, research showed that this PSH ended homelessness for even the most disabled people.
Thus, by the mid-1990s we had a problem of solvable size AND we had a solution.
I am going to get to the scaling up in a minute, but first I want to reflect just a moment on the different models of permanent supportive housing we have. We heard here today about a number of really great models, and we have many models in the States.
There is the conventional single site, dedicated model in which all the units in a building are devoted to permanent supportive housing. Such buildings tend to have modest studio apartments, often with a kitchenette and/or bathroom (although sometimes in the older buildings the facilities are shared). Some have a fair amount of common area, but others – especially new construction – have very little because of cost. Sometimes fairly intensive services are on-site, but other times the services are really just case management, which links tenants to other services in the community.
There is what you call the Common Ground model in which some of the units are for permanent supportive housing and others are market rate or affordable for other members of the community. Again, the units tend to be small and simple, and the services vary.
Increasingly there is a scattered site model in which people rent units in apartment buildings and the services are mobile or provided off-site. There has been discussion today of the Pathways model. This employs the Assertive Community Treatment or ACT team method of providing services. There are other models that primarily use the intensive case management design to link consumers to other service providers, while ensuring that they get the services they need to reside in the community.
These models are all largely for people with serious mental illness, substance abuse disorders, physical disabilities, age-related issues, or a mixture of these. The story of permanent supportive housing is hugely positive and it is solving vexing problems and generating enormous bipartisan political will nationally and in virtually every city in America. This is a huge success story that is influencing how other social problems are handled.
How did we go from a program model with a scattered set of practitioners to nearly 200,000 units that have significantly reduced chronic homelessness and are targeting the hardest to serve people in literally every community in the country? I think that the recipe for scaling up, for us, is not that complicated, and it is one that we have replicated for other homelessness problems.
The first step was being able to size the problem, and having a problem that is of solvable scale. We had been speaking in the U.S. about a homeless population of millions, which felt too big to solve. But research revealed a problem of a solvable scale – 250,000 people who were chronically homeless, very ill, and clearly should not be on the street or in shelter.
The second step was having a solution to the problem. A fair amount of research had been done on permanent supportive housing, and much more has been done now. It is clear that it works. Generally speaking a minimum of 80 percent of people with disabilities can be successfully housed in permanent supportive housing, and frequently that percentage is much higher.
The third part of the equation was having a solution that is affordable. Cost studies had shown that it costs the public sector at least as much to leave someone with serious mental illness on the street as it costs to house them with services. Subsequent cost studies on people with HIV/AIDS and chronic street inebriates have found significant cost savings from housing high cost people. By shifting money that was being spent on not solving the problem to solving the problem, we could get there. Of course, that is more easily said than done as a practical matter.
These three things together – a problem of solvable scale, for which we had a solution that was effective and cost effective – provided us with a framework for solving the problem. If there are 200,000 chronically homeless people whose homelessness can be ended with permanent supportive housing that costs less than what we do now, by providing 20,000 more units per year for the next ten years, we can solve the problem in ten years. So this was less about program models and more about the overall framework of solving the problem.
This framework allowed policy makers and practitioners to see a way forward. By going to scale, they could solve a problem, not just endlessly address it. And they could do it cost-effectively.
I want to point out that these three factors all involve something very important, and that is data and research. Without data and research: we would not have known the number of chronically homeless people; we would not have been able to verify the effectiveness of the solution; and we would not have been able to make the cost argument.
One other essential ingredient in getting this going was advocacy. I can promise you that this research, once it emerged, did not just automatically cause policymakers to say, “Let’s create 200,000 units of permanent supportive housing and end chronic homelessness!” It was a few key national organizations with strong credentials and good capacity that moved the agenda forward through advocacy.
Once the scaled problem and a cost-effective solution were in place, what were the steps in scaling this up? There was no single thing that happened, but a series of things.
On the political will side, there were commitments made by the Administration and by Congress to end chronic homelessness. In both cases, these commitments were expressed in budget terms, so there were some dollars behind it. That was the beginning. Over time, at the federal level:
- Congress targeted 30 percent of the nation’s largest homeless assistance grant program to permanent supportive housing. This essentially required that every community in the nation begin to provide permanent supportive housing, and created a steady stream of funding over time.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) started funding thousands of units of permanent supportive housing for homeless military veterans; a large group in the U.S. The federal housing department provides rent vouchers for scattered site housing and VA provides the services.
- The goal setting continued, with the current Administration vowing to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015.
In this way, federal leadership and a pipeline of resources were established.
States and localities also began to take up the challenge:
- Some State housing finance agencies – public entities that fund affordable housing – began to require that a percentage of multi-family housing units they financed be permanent supportive housing, or to target a percentage of funds to permanent supportive housing each year.
- New York State and New York City created the New York/New York agreements to provide thousands of units of permanent supportive housing.
- Plans to end homelessness, which exist in nearly every major city in the nation, almost all contain commitments to end chronic homelessness.
And the private sector has gotten on board:
- There is a consortium of foundations dedicated to getting their peers to fund permanent supportive housing.
- The new Social Impact Bond movement in the U.S. is focused on ending chronic homelessness through permanent supportive housing because of the cost savings.
We also had to increase our capacity to provide permanent supportive housing. Many homeless organizations were initially disinclined to engage in the strategy: they had no will or expertise to develop housing or provide sophisticated services. Some felt that their mission lay in helping people who were homeless – not in ending people’s homelessness. But the federal leadership, expressed through money, pushed the development of will and capacity among nonprofit providers. National intermediary NGOs emerged to help with financing, technical assistance, and training. Eventually the capacity developed.
All of these elements are geared to increasing the scale of the intervention. Certainly individual organizations still have to have the mission and the gumption to do the deals and put up the housing, and in the U.S. as here that is a gargantuan effort. But increasingly the systems are being created that will provide and sustain enough of this housing to meet all the needs.
All of this is not without challenges, some of which I have identified. You might ask, for example, if we had 200,000 chronically homeless people and we created 200,000 units of permanent supportive housing, shouldn’t the problem be solved? And yet there are 107,000 chronically homeless people remaining. Why?
The main challenge has been that the permanent supportive housing units do not all go to chronically homeless people. Some of this is policy, in that the agencies do not require that every unit go to chronically homeless people. Some of it is the providers, who may not take the high-need tenants, either because they just don’t feel they have the service supports for the most needy people; because they really don’t want to take them; or because performance benchmarks disincentivize that.
Some of these targeting issues are being handled by changes in policy, and also by things such as the vulnerability index, and the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which I know have been here in Australia. These campaigns – sort of like the Ten Year Plan campaign of early 2000s – get people geared up to identify and house the hardest to serve.
There are other issues as well. There are mismatches between where the units are and where the people who need them are. Funds are given out by formula and go to every community. But the majority of the chronically homeless population is in the big cities like New York and Los Angeles. So we don’t have the units where we need them.
And a significant lesson we’re learning is the importance of different models. Not every one of us wants to live in the same type of housing with the same type of people. I have noticed that where there is a proliferation of one type – say single site – there is more failure because if that model doesn’t work for someone, there is no option. Let a thousand flowers bloom and don’t get too caught up in the purity of any model. Different models means there is more choice for consumers and if you want to end homelessness, you will need someplace that works for every single person.
At the end of the day, we have not ended chronic homelessness in the U.S. nor solved all of the problems related to providing permanent supportive housing. But we have cut chronic homelessness significantly. And some communities have essentially ended it.
Since we started a little earlier than you, there might be some things to learn from us. I would summarize them as follows.
- Data is critical to building the case and then measuring progress and adjusting as you go along.
- Having a framework for how you’re going to end the problem works.
- Setting numerical goals is important.
- You need strong, talented advocacy.
- You need technical assistance and capacity building.
- You need sustained funding.
- Targeting is critical – otherwise you won’t reduce your numbers.
- Use a lot of models, but stay focused on the population you want to address.
- Try to get the money moving in this direction – if every project is a one-off it will never scale up. You need a pipeline.
I appreciate and admire the terrific work that is going on here in Australia. I commend the efforts of the Common Ground Alliance to bring you all together. And I very much I look forward to the discussion about how you could scale up in Australia. Thank you.
Community planners now have a great new tool to evaluate changes to their communities’ homelessness assistance system. With the newly released Performance Improvement Calculator, developed by Focus Strategies, you can use your community’s HMIS and budget data to see the impact a proposed change has on the rate of permanent housing exits and average costs.
It is easy to experiment with the Calculator because it comes preloaded with sample data, although you’ll get the best results if you complete the Calculator with your own communities’ data. I wanted to see, for example, what the impact would be if I reduced the average length of time adults and families stay in transitional housing programs by 30 days. I reduced the length of stay, and then checked the summary tab to see what the effect would be. The charts on the left of this post show my result – I’ve increased my permanent housing exits by three percent and cut the average cost per permanent housing exit by six percent.
Other things you can experiment with, either independently or all together, include:
- Changing the average permanent housing placement rates for different kinds of programs (typically shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing),
- Changing the rate at which people return to the homeless system after being housed,
- Moving funding from one type of intervention to another, and
- As I did above, changing the average length of program stays.
At our conference this summer, I had the privilege of moderating a session on “Retooling Your Transitional Housing.” One of our speakers for the session was Vera Beech, Executive Director of Community Rebuilders in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The title of her presentation was “Families in Transition – a Successful Precedent for the Re-Design of Transitional Housing Programs.”
Vera shared with the participants the journey that Community Rebuilders took in 2007 to retool their scattered site traditional transitional housing program into a rapid re-housing approach. The program shift involved amending a HUD Supportive Housing Program-Transitional Housing (SHP-TH) grant, reallocating a $300,000 supportive service line item to the leasing budget. As a result of the shift, the renamed “Transitional Assistance” program is serving more households than before and achieving better housing outcomes, including reduced length of program stay and increased cost-effectiveness.
The retooled Transitional Assistance model is scattered site and uses private market rentals with the lease in the consumer’s name. The program uses a rapid re-housing approach with the length of program assistance, including rental assistance, averaging eight months. Significant changes included adopting a consumer centered and strength based approach, making service participation voluntary, emphasizing consumer housing choice, and all leases being in the consumer’s name where consumers can stay after program involvement ends. These changes increased stability for families and encouraged connections to their community.
Two key focuses that steered the retooling journey for Community Rebuilders included “readying the resources” and “keeping your eyes on your priorities.” Vera shared that the retooling process took time, but by focusing on the resources at hand and the organization’s priorities, the retooled program resulted in an increased effectiveness in meeting the needs of the families experiencing homelessness in the Grand Rapids Community.
You can see Vera’s PowerPoint presentation from our conference here.