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Today’s guest blog post was written by Kristin Pazulski, Development Director and Managing Editor for the Denver VOICE. It includes an excerpt from the 2012 issue of the Denver VOICE, written by Raelene Johnson.
Raelene Johnson spent years living on the streets of Boulder. The shady space under a bridge was her home. She scraped by on the money earned the typical way on the street, her drug habit keeping her in a cycle of poverty and homelessness.
In 2008 Johnson discovered the Denver VOICE, a street paper in Colorado. As soon she walked through the vendor office door, she was given the opportunity to work. She received one hour of training and a badge with 10 free papers in exchange for the promise to conduct herself professionally while selling the VOICE.
Grabbing her first paper and ducking into the lanyard that held a tag with her face, name and vendor number, Johnson had no idea she was embarking on a journey very different from the one she’d been on.
There are 122 street papers around the world, more than 30 in North America. These papers are connected through two large networks—the International Network of Street Papers and the North American Street Newspaper Association.
Some are volunteer-based, while others have large staffs and monthly circulations exceeding 100,000. A wire service similar to the Associated Press allows street papers around the world to share their stories. Thanks to this service, smaller street papers can produce quality content on a shoestring budget.
Many individuals on the street battle daily with substance abuse, mental illness, disability or other obstacles that prevent them from working a typical job or connecting with services available to people experiencing homelessness.
Street papers can give people like this the opportunity to earn money in a manner more dignified than panhandling, and can even provide them with an opportunity to express themselves.
As of this fall, Johnson is two years sober and clean and she’s celebrating her fifth year anniversary with the VOICE.
Here is her story in her own words.
A Life Change by Raelene Johnson (Excerpted from The Denver VOICE, August 2012)
July 14, 2012 marked my four-and-a-half year anniversary with the Denver VOICE. My life has really changed since I started working with the VOICE. Most of my life, I was told I was dumb, I was stupid, I was no good. I have had many head injuries, so trying to hold down a real job was very hard for me. I had no self-esteem or self-worth. I have been homeless most of my life.
On Jan. 14, 2008, I started selling the VOICE. When I first started, I was sleeping under a bridge. At first, it was hard for me to sell papers. After the first three or four months, I started to do well. It felt good that for the first time in my life, I was making money.
One of the best things about the VOICE is even if you have no high school diploma, no job reference, no home, no ID, a felony or whatever it may be, you walk into the distribution office and you walk out with a job. I could not believe how easy it was to get a job!
By the time it came to my year anniversary of working for the VOICE, I was the top female vendor. I felt good about myself for the first time in my life. People started telling me how good of a job I was doing. It felt great because all of my life I was told I was no good and couldn’t do anything right.
As my second anniversary came, I was the best female vendor and placed first or second in the top ten over everyone for two years! Boy, did that make a change in me. At that time, I was very tired of doing drugs.
The last two years have been the best so far in my life. We build self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence. Most of the vendors you see have gotten off the streets. Not bad for a $2 donation.
As of July 1, I am 22-months clean of a crack cocaine habit and two years clean of alcohol. I never knew how happy I could be once I believed in myself and became drug-free.
By telling people my story, I am doing what I can to help others. The best thing that I can say to everyone is, believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are worthless or no good. Everyone is God’s child. Treat everyone with kindness. Help someone; even just a kind word can change someone’s life.
I wanted to tell my story about what the VOICE has done for me. I wanted to let the buyer of the VOICE know how this paper has changed so many lives, not just mine, but thousands of people since 1997. So, for all of us, we thank you for caring about the VOICE and all us vendors.
As the federal budget tightens and the growth of programs targeted for the homeless slows, it is more important than ever for homeless advocates and service providers to engage in a more meaningful way with Public Housing Agencies (PHAs). After all, these agencies administer billions of dollars nationally in rental and other housing assistance and, in many communities, are on the front lines of preventing and ending homelessness.
Over the past two years, we at the Corporation for Supportive Housing(CSH) have focused more of our resources and advocacy efforts on programs integral to the success of PHAs, such as Section 8 rental assistance, Section 8 administrative fees and Public Housing operating funds. We’ve also looked closely at the work of PHAs to identify issues preventing PHAs from doing more to end homelessness. It has become clear to us that non-profit organizations like CSH and the Alliance, as well as government agencies such as HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, need to do more work to build capacity and know-how among PHAs, to debunk myths about restrictions on who can be housed in federally-assisted housing, and to help share best practices from successful communities.
We also have seen that PHAs and homeless service providers can have a complementary relationship, with PHAs and providers helping each other achieve their respective goals. PHAs want to improve relationships with landlords; they want to score well on federal funding competitions that often give points for targeting assistance to the most vulnerable people in the community; and they want to accomplish their mission of providing housing to low-income people. Homeless service providers can help PHAs accomplish many of these goals by providing the support services that increase the chances for success.
Conversely, providers are looking for rental assistance, reduced barriers to housing, and for PHAs to provide priorities and preferences for people who are homeless. PHAs can provide that rental assistance, clarify their intake procedures, allow for more flexibility and become a part of community- planning efforts to end homelessness.
On September 10, we launched one of the outcomes of our recent focus on PHAs. Our new PHA Toolkit is an interactive resource for the PHAs and partners interested in pursuing supportive housing as way to fight homelessness. We included in the Toolkit specific strategies and concrete examples of the roles PHAs can play to create supportive housing. Also included in the toolkit:
- Profiles of how PHAs have worked to reduce homelessness
- Sample documents and agreements
- A glossary of service terms
- Models for partnering with other systems in the community
We are grateful for the collaboration and feedback provided by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD and others in making this toolkit a reality. The toolkit is online now at csh.org/phatoolkit.
By working together and using some of the tools in CSH’s Toolkit, PHAs and community partners can achieve our shared goal of ending homelessness for good.
As the Alliance’s Director of Meetings and Events I am excited to be in the midst of planning the 2013 National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness. I’m thrilled that we are returning to Seattle, WA for this event.
The Alliance’s first Seattle conference took place in 2007, and it had the largest turnout of any of our west coast conferences. We hope to surpass that turnout in 2013, and we look forward to meeting more passionate folks who are working diligently year-round to ensure that there will one day be an end to homelessness in America.
For those of you who attend the conference, it’s a two-day affair (not counting your roundtrip travel). For Alliance staff though, conference planning begins more than a year before the event. Here’s a look at our planning process:
We like to finalize a location more than a year prior to the conference. For example, for our upcoming conference we secured a location in November of 2011. We choose the geographic location based upon what cities are doing to end homelessness in that area.
Choosing the location is just the beginning, though. Once that’s done, we have to research hotels in the area to determine which are large enough and have the proper layout for our conference, then we send requests for proposals to the prospective hotels. Once we receive proposals, we go through the details of each. We also give careful consideration to the kinds of concessions offered by each hotel. The Alliance is very budget-conscious, so we tend to favor the proposals that include concessions that lower the Alliance’s bottom line.
For example, a hotel may offer one complimentary room for a certain number of rooms sold within our sleeping room block. So if one hotel offers one complimentary room per 40 rooms sold, and another offers one per 50, we’ll be more interested in the first hotel, because we would receive more complimentary rooms for 40 rooms purchased, than we would for 50.
The entire hotel contract negotiation process takes about a month to finalize. Our goal is to have the signed, in-hand hotel contract more than a year prior to the February conference.
The reason we plan so far in advance is to ensure that we have as many options to go with as possible. When we have a large number of hotels to choose from, we have plenty of room to negotiate great deals. Once the hotel contract is signed, though, we’re able to put the planning to rest – for a while anyway.
Promotional materials and conference content
The next piece in the planning process comes eight months prior to the event. This is the time when we finalize the event timeline and send requests for proposals to the event graphic designer and audio-visual suppliers, and the Alliance staff begins finalizing workshop content and speakers.
We put together the event timeline by working backwards from the date of the event, flagging important deadlines. This allows us to keep the planning on track and remind the Alliance network when important deadlines like registration cutoff dates and hotel reservation cutoff dates are approaching.
(This timeline is a very important piece of the puzzle. It’s something I refer to every day in the planning process.)
We handle the requests for proposals to the graphic designer and the AV suppliers in much the same way as we do the requests for proposals to hotels. We find a few vendors we’re interested in working with and let them know what we need. Once we receive the proposals from the vendors, we ask for clarification on certain items and negotiate prices. We usually sign a contract with our chosen vendors within a week of receiving the proposals.
A couple weeks later, we begin working with our chosen graphic designer on the promotional materials for our conference. The designer bases the design on the conference themes chosen beforehand by the entire Alliance staff, including our President, Nan Roman, and our Vice President for Programs and Policy, Steve Berg.
Our conference themes typically come from current and future issues in the homeless assistance field, the economy, and the conference’s location – to name just a few sources of inspiration.
While the designer is hard at work pulling together possible conference graphic designs, the Alliance staff engage in hours of brainstorming sessions over the course of several weeks to come up with timely, relevant, and vital content for the conference. These meetings are time-consuming but essential, as we wouldn’t have quality conference content without them.
Where we are today
This is where we currently are in our planning for the upcoming National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness, in the midst of putting together the content for our conference. Planning our conferences is a long, involved, arduous process, but we at the Alliance feel fortunate to be able to host such important annual events. Our conferences reach 2,000 people nationwide (with a few who travel internationally to join us) – and that number is in attendance alone. Thousands more follow the conferences on social media and our blog, and many follow up with us afterwards to obtain conference materials.
We have also seen attendees come to our conferences year after year to learn more, and to report back about what amazing work they were able to implement in their communities from the information they gathered at the previous conferences. I hope to see you all in Seattle this February!
For some time now, we have been telling you about big federal budgetary issues, and how these issues could affect efforts to end homelessness. A recent report to Congress by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), requested by Congress in the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012, is a reminder of the impact these issues can have.
We’ve already told you about “sequestration,” the across-the-board spending cuts scheduled to take effect in three and a half months under the Budget Control Act that Congress passed and the President signed into law in early 2011.
Now, a recent report to Congress by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), has spelled out, for the first time, which programs in the federal budget will be exempt from sequestration, and how much funding each nonexempt program will lose in January.
According to the report, sequestration would cut the HUD Homeless Assistance line by $156 million, with HUD deciding how much of this cut would come from the Emergency Solutions Grants, and how much from the Continuum of Care. Either way, existing programs would need to be scaled back or shut down.
Our funding analysis shows that these programs need approximately $2.1 billion in FY 2013 appropriations to remain funded at their current level. If homeless assistance is funded at the Continuing Resolution amount, which is already insufficient, and then cut by $156 million under sequestration, we would end up with funding at $1.757 billion, a shortfall of 16 percent.
The local impacts of that shortfall are not hard to calculate. Just take the amount necessary to renew your existing Continuum of Care project or ESG grant, and subtract 16 percent. The effect such a dramatic cut in spending would have on our efforts to address homelessness would be grim and profound.
Sequestration was never meant to be good policy; it was designed to be so bad that Congress and the Administration would have no choice but to work together to find a better way to reduce the deficit. So far that hasn’t happened.
If Congress is going to address the deficit now, it should use a balanced approach that takes account of the severe cuts in spending that have already taken place in the “domestic discretionary” category. HUD programs and other programs like Health Care for the Homeless, SAMHSA programs that help homeless people with disabilities (and many others) have already been cut too much.
Congress created the sequestration rule, so it has the power to reverse it and replace it with something else. If it decides that the economy is too fragile for a big deficit reduction effort now, it doesn’t have to replace it with anything at all.
Members of congress already face a lot of pressure from critics of the policy, so odds are decent that congress may put some other plan in its place. The question is whether Congress will replace it with a policy that is better or worse for the most impoverished Americans.
What is needed is a realistic policy that properly funds the federal role in protecting the most vulnerable Americans, housing people who can’t afford even the most minimally decent housing, and helping people without jobs get employment.
Yesterday the U.S. Census released data on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in 2011. By now you’ve seen the headlines: the poverty rate has leveled off at 15 percent after three years of increasing and remains at the highest level since 1993, while median income has declined by 1.5 percent, which means that the middle class continues to feel the strain of the bad economy. More people are covered by health insurance (1.4 million more than in 2010), which is certainly welcome news, since the number of people with health insurance has been going down for the last 10 years. But while poverty has leveled off, it remains at historically high levels, and children continue to be disproportionately impacted. We could be doing a lot more.
- 16.1 million children in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2011—that’s more than one in five children.
- Young children in families headed by a single mother were hardest hit: 57.6 percent of children under the age of 6 in families headed by a single mother live in poverty.
- Over 7 million children live in deep poverty, subsisting on less than $1,000 a month for a family of four ($11,511 annually) – that’s 9.8 percent of all children in the U.S.
- And deep poverty is much more prevalent among very young children, with 11.8 percent of all children under the age of 6 living in families with incomes below half the poverty level.
We know social benefits can help lift people out of poverty. One example is Social Security benefits. Social Security benefits have lifted 14.5 million adults age 65 and older out of poverty. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) reduced poverty for 3 million children, even though they’re still included in the 16 million children living in poverty reported in the Census poverty data since it excludes income from the EITC. That’s a start (a good one).
The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program could do more. The program provides states with resources to support low-income families so children can be cared for in their own homes and helps parents connect to employment. How well is it working? Not as well as it could be. States choose how they use TANF resources and sets benefit levels, which are currently insufficient to lift most families without other sources of income out of deep poverty, never mind out of poverty altogether.
States could do more. States could increase TANF benefit levels and allow families on TANF who are employed to keep more of their earnings. Many families living in poverty are not accessing TANF benefits at all, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. States could reduce the number of families without income from work or TANF benefits by helping families enroll quickly on TANF and meet program requirements.
States could also do more to help people on TANF connect to employment. States predominately rely on a narrow set of tools to help people on TANF prepare for, and enter, the workforce. For too many families, particularly in an economy with high unemployment, these tools simply aren’t enough.
But there’s been some progress on this front. In July, the Administration released an Information Memorandum inviting states to submit applications for waivers. Under these waivers, states can test new strategies to increase the number of families on TANF who transition to employment. This is an opportunity for states to improve how they use welfare resources to help reduce the number of children living in deep poverty.
And that’s a big step in the right direction, because perhaps the most effective strategy to lift children out of poverty is to help their parents find employment.
Last month, nearly 1,500 people traveled from all over the country to Washington, D.C. for the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Almost a quarter of those people participated in Capitol Hill Day, and visited their Members of Congress on Capitol Hill to update them on local progress in ending homelessness and to urge them to make ending homelessness a federal priority.
Based on our State Captains’ “report backs” from more than 289 meetings, we’ve compiled a 2012 Capitol Hill Day Report and Summary. The report highlights the major successes of this year’s Capitol Hill Day. For starters, more than 360 participants went on more than 289 meetings. Five states, including Arkansas, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Dakota, had a 100 percent participation rate, meaning that every person from the state who registered for our conference participated in Capitol Hill Day.
In the 289 congressional meetings, more than 75 of which involved a member of Congress (another record broken over last year), advocates made the case for the following Hill Day Policy Priorities:
- Provide $2.23 billion in FY 2013 for HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grants Program;
- Provide $127 million in FY 2013 for Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) Programs;
- Provide $1.35 billion for VA’s targeted homeless veteran programs, including $300 million for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program;
- Provide $100 million for SAMHSA Homeless Services Programs in FY 2013;
- Renew all existing Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers in FY 2013, and provide $75 million for about 10,000 new HUD – VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program vouchers; and
- Prevent further cuts in non-defense, discretionary spending for affordable housing and targeted homeless assistance programs.
It is worth noting that funding for the McKinney-Vento program was the subject of discussion in more than 233 meetings – that’s approximately 81 percent of all the meetings!
This year, the appropriations process has been on a “hurry up and wait” timeline. Both the House and Senate made great strides in producing and passing the fiscal year 2013 appropriations bills. But they stalled toward the end of June before the process was completed, promising to take the measures back up following the election. This put Capitol Hill Day in a slightly different context than previous years. There were no “Dear Colleague” congressional sign-on letters circulating in either the House or Senate, and unfortunately, Hill Day advocates had few concrete, immediate actions they could ask their Members to take.
Instead, advocates focused on inviting their Members on tours of local programs during the upcoming congressional recesses. In fact, they invited nearly 75 Members of Congress on a site visit – that’s more than twice as many invitations as were extended last year! This certainly helped lay the groundwork for the McKinney-Vento Site Visit Campaign, launched in early August, close on the heels of Capitol Hill Day.
As always, the best part of Capitol Hill Day is that the full impact of these 289 meetings could extend beyond the immediate successes outlined in this report. Capitol Hill Day participants realized valuable opportunities to create and strengthen relationships with members of Congress and their staff members. These bonds will prove to have an incalculable impact in the coming weeks, months, and years, particularly as Congress works to finalize the FY 2013 funding bills and tackles some of the bigger budget issues.
The success of this year’s Capitol Hill Day wouldn’t have been possible without people from around the country coming together. The effort of each person, and particularly the 73 volunteer State Captains, who spent countless hours organizing each state’s efforts, allowed this year’s Capitol Hill Day to be one of the most successful yet.
Thanks again to all our wonderful advocates and for yet another fantastic Capitol Hill Day!
As we return to work after the Labor Day long weekend, we at the Alliance would like to recognize all those whose experience of homelessness is related to unemployment or underemployment. Labor Day is “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country,” according to the Department of Labor.
At the height of the economic crisis a number of years ago, we completed a short series of briefs called Economy Bytes, which explored various economic indicators and their relationship to homelessness: Doubled Up in the United States, Working Poor People in the United States, and Effect of State and Local Budget Cuts on Homelessness. Until now, we have been unable to explore these economic challenges in greater depth.
After spending the summer as the Alliance’s Youth Policy Fellow, I am extremely pleased to have the opportunity to spend the upcoming semester in the new role of Economic Development Policy Fellow. In this new capacity, my primary emphasis will be on investigating employment initiatives for different sub-populations experiencing homelessness.
I’ll also be examining federal policies such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, exploring projects devoted to asset building and microenterprise, compiling a brief assessment of what other countries have done to address similar issues, and so forth.
This undertaking is long overdue, and we at the Alliance are excited to launch this new initiative. If your community or region has implemented innovative employment practices or economic policies for populations experiencing homelessness, we’d love to hear from you.
We’d like to wish you a belated Happy Labor Day!
Over the last few years, host homes have gained traction as a means of housing youth experiencing homelessness in rural areas. Host homes entail a formalized, mutual agreement between a community member and a service provider. The community member provides shelter, food and sometimes transportation for youth, while the provider delivers case management services. Community members typically receive a small stipend and undergo training and background checks.
One of the great strengths of host homes is their flexibility, since communities can adapt the model to fit localized needs and budget limitations:
The Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) initiated the Rural Host Home Demonstration Project to serve youth who live in rural areas not served by shelter facilities. In this program, youth under age 18 can receive:
- Shelter for up to 21 days;
- Assistance staying connected to their school; and
- An aftercare plan with continuing support upon exiting the program.
Youth Advocates of Sitka, Inc., in Sitka, Alaska, implemented a resource home program through their Transitional Living Program (TLP). Youth up to age 21 can receive:
- Housing for up to 18 months;
- Active resource parent involvement through age 18;
- Mentoring to develop independent living skills through age 21;
- Counseling and case management; and
- Access to housing vouchers and affordable housing.
Resource homes receive:
- A stipend of $30 per day per child; and
- Extensive training opportunities, including open invitations to staff training sessions.
The benefits of host homes are significant:
- They are more economical
- No physical facility needed
- Cost savings of paying ‘resource/host parents’ rather than extensive support staff
- They overcome a local lack of affordable rentals for permanent living spaces;
- They allow youth to build stronger relationships and interpersonal skills, experience stability in their home life, learn positive life skills that will help them transition to independence, and help motivate them to attain this quality of life in adulthood.
How can your community use host homes for youth experiencing homelessness?
It has been almost a month now since the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness, and we have been doing our best to make sure that you have access to as much of our conference materials as possible. All the workshop materials that presenters provided to us have been placed on our website here, where they are available for download. We will continue to update the page as we receive materials.
Finally, we have already received numerous requests for the keynote remarks that our CEO and President Nan Roman delivered at the conference, so we thank you for your patience. We have finally published them on our website, and we are including them in this blog post below.
NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ENDING FAMILY HOMELESSNESS
President and CEO
July 16 2012
Good afternoon and welcome to the 2012 National Alliance on Ending Homelessness. I want to extend our most heartfelt and deep thanks to all of you for being here today. We have over 1400 people in attendance – a record! Most of you are here because you have a burning desire to learn from your colleagues what you can do to improve your own approaches to ending homelessness. You want to know about the most effective practices and the most promising innovations that will work for you. Many of you have traveled far and put a lot of resources into making it here to D.C. for our conference, and we want you to know how deeply we appreciate that. I promise you that the Alliance staff has put tremendous effort into making sure that you have plenty of content here to chew on.
My job today is to tell you what we at the Alliance see as the current lay of the land: where we stand, what has worked, what has not, and what the future holds. I think we are at a pivotal moment on the issue, because things are very difficult now.
It seems that 2008 and 2009 should have been the most difficult years with respect to homelessness, with the huge spikes in unemployment, plummeting family incomes, a massive number of foreclosures, and painful cuts in state and local budgets. Many nonprofits lost big chunks of their budgets, and many households found themselves either on the brink of, or falling into, homelessness. These were, indeed, bad years, but we had some things going for us. We had the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP), and housing costs were going down. And when you have less to work with, you are spurred to innovate, to work harder, to try new things. It may have been a frightening time, but the sense of urgency it inspired was a shot of adrenaline that pushed us forward.
I fear that today is, in some ways, a more dangerous time. We may have arrived at a new status quo. I fear that the sense of urgency has diminished, and that the mood of the nation has taken an alarming turn. Politics have become ugly. Bipartisanship, once seen as something to be aspired to, is now reviled as an indication that one or the other side must have “given in.” Our sense of mutual responsibility is diminishing, perhaps because people are increasingly fearful about their own financial security. Rather than compassion towards people who live in poverty, there is animosity or contempt. There is little acknowledgement that our futures are bound together.
And we still have high unemployment, foreclosures, falling incomes, and budget cuts, although this time those cuts are threatened from the federal government as state and local budgets start to level out. Housing costs are going up, and we are losing HPRP, a program that has done so much to address the problem of homelessness and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
These are alarming developments, but we are not powerless to affect them. If we believe that a defining value of our nation is the conviction that the most vulnerable people among us should be supported and treated with compassion, we must stand up and say that. If we believe that our nation, which remains the richest nation in the world in spite of its current economic woes, has the capacity to provide children, veterans, people with mental illness – indeed, anyone in need – with food, clothing and a place to call home, we must stand up and say that.
And of course, now is the perfect time. We are in an election cycle. Whatever political party you belong to, now is the time for you to make yourself heard. Now is the time to make sure that people who share your convictions do the same. You are the ones who care the most about poor people and solving their problems. If you do not speak up about it, who will? So make sure to vote; make sure you participate; and, most importantly, make sure that everyone you work with, especially consumers, is registered to vote and participate.
If you want to know how to do that, we have a workshop here that can show you. The Alliance for Justice and the National Coalition for the Homeless both have tables outside where you can get information. Everyone should be registered to vote, and should vote. Your participation will make a difference.
Lately there has been a great deal of discussion in homelessness assistance field about new strategies and how we can do things smarter. That’s a discussion we need to have, because the reality is that we are likely going to learn how to do more with less. Already 40 percent of people who are homeless are unsheltered, according to the most recent HUD Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, and the Alliance expects the number of people experiencing homelessness to rise. We issued a report late last year estimating that, based on increases in deep poverty, homelessness might be expected to increase a minimum of 5 percent over the next few years. Because of the fiscal perfect storm that threatens 2013 – the end of the Bush-era tax cuts, the sequestration of federal spending, and the approach of the debt ceiling – we may have fewer federal resources to draw upon in the future.
So the key thing to keep in mind here is that, if we want to keep families and children and youth and vulnerable people off the streets, we are going to have to be smart about it. If we can do something that is equally effective and costs less, we need to do that. And that means change.
Our experience with HPRP has taught us that rapid re-housing linked with services works better and is more cost-effective than interventions like transitional housing. Don’t expect, however, to get more money for rapid re-housing. Instead, we will need to re-allocate funding from other interventions such as transitional housing to rapid re-housing.
We also need to think about effective targeting. Over the past few years, using the permanent housing set aside, HUD-VASH and other permanent supportive housing funding, we have created a lot of permanent supportive housing. Between 2007 and 2011 the nation’s permanent supportive housing inventory increased by 40 percent, or nearly 60,000 units. Chronic homelessness went down, but its decline was not commensurate with that increase in housing inventory.
Chronic homelessness is a complex problem, so there could be several causes for that discrepancy. The one thing we can be certain about, however, is that people experiencing chronic homelessness are not receiving enough of the permanent supportive housing. If we are going to have the impact we want – if we are going to end chronic homelessness – we need to target these units at the most vulnerable people. We need to identify and house the people with the greatest need and the longest spells of homelessness. We have seen, in community after community, that this sort of deep targeting is what brings the numbers down. So we must target the less intensive interventions at the people who are the easiest to serve, and save the most intensive interventions for the people who are the hardest to serve. And we must do this on a community-wide level.
There are two other issues I want to talk to you about today: youth experiencing homelessness, and the crisis system.
While good work has been done on youth homelessness, we are still not where we should be. We still lack crucial information about the size of the population of youth experiencing homelessness; we still lack a definitive typology; we still do not know which interventions work best and for whom. As a result we have not been able to generate the will to go to scale; we have not been able to increase resources appreciably; and we have not made much progress.
At the Alliance, we took a preliminary stab at remedying this by sizing the population and identifying its segments. We used federal survey data and academic typologies. The data are weak, but segments of the population have emerged in our research, and we have arrived at some ideas about how to move forward. Here is what we found.
- A great many youth between 12 and 24 become homeless every year. The number is somewhere around 1.9 million. But the vast majority – 70 percent or 1.3 million – experience homelessness for a relatively short period of time.
- The rest stay homeless longer, but they eventually return home or find housing rather quickly; and those under 18 remain connected to family or school.
- About 80,000 youth have more serious problems, and about half of those have disabilities.
- About 60,000 of these youth are the heads of young families of their own.
Admittedly, this typology is based on less than perfect data, and it does not tell us everything. We still need more research and more data on the population of LGBTQ kids, and on the causes and effects of the sexual exploitation of homeless youth. And the child welfare system still requires our attention: it remains unclear why anyone under 18 is homeless, given that minors are the responsibility of the state child welfare system.
What does this typology tell us? Well, just as in the population of adults experiencing homelessness, the population of youths experiencing homelessness can be divided into two groups: a large group with less intensive needs and a much smaller group with more intensive needs. For the first group, we clearly need a more robust crisis system. These youth may not be homeless for very long, but bad things can happen to them even in a few hours. And for the youth in that group who eventually return home, we need to focus more on family intervention to ensure that their return happens as quickly and safely as possible.
For the second group, where the need is the greatest, we should focus on ending their homelessness by targeting Runaway and Homeless Youth Act resources at them and ramping up housing and services. The number of high-need youth is small, making this a very solvable problem. Nevertheless, youth in this group are often screened out of programs.
When it comes to young homeless families, we need to add developmental programming and family intervention to the general homeless family system, which is where most members of young homeless families receive services.
This typology also has many policy implications. For instance, it shows that we must obtain data faster, and include youth experiencing homelessness in the 2013 point in time count. It also underscores the fact that homeless providers, advocates and researchers still lack a single, definitive management information system for the collection and reporting of outcomes on the size and characteristics of the homeless population, which means that we should merge the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management and Information System (RHYMIS) with the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). We also should incentivize existing homeless youth providers to serve the highest need kids. We can scale up the family intervention services provided by child welfare, juvenile justice and the Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Act. And we must engage to improve our child welfare and family support programs, because much of the problem of youth homelessness can still be traced back to large holes in this vital safety net.
The problem of youth homelessness will be a big issue for us in the year ahead, and we already have great partners like the National Network for Youth who are committed to making a big push to end youth homelessness.
The other issue that we at the Alliance have been examining is the homeless crisis system: how it should be sized and what it should look like. For many years now the design of the crisis system has largely been neglected, and the idea of emergency shelter as a solution has been demonized, and characterized as inadequate, as a mere “Band-Aid.”
It’s true that the shelters ALONE are not the solution, but it is equally true that the majority of people who become homeless are single, able-bodied adults for whom the interventions of permanent supportive housing and transitional housing are too intensive. As we do with other human service programs, we tend to think of the crisis system in terms of the people who stay there the longest. But in reality, the majority of people who enter emergency shelters quickly move in and then move on. For them shelter is an effective short term solution – as it was designed to be.
For most people, the shelter serves its purpose as a temporary place to stay while they work out whatever kind of housing crisis they are experiencing. Most people do not stay in the system long, and they typically do not come back, or only come back once.
The crisis system also serves a vital sorting function. People enter the system when they need to, but because it is so bare bones and so unpleasant, they have little incentive to stay longer than is absolutely necessary. In this way the system sorts the people with the greatest need, the people who require the most intensive interventions, from the majority of people who are experiencing a crisis that they can handle more or less on their own.
To design a good shelter or crisis system, we must answer the following questions.
- What should it do?
- What should be its overall size?
- What types and number of specialized beds should be available? Most jurisdictions have a good number of beds for single adult men, but have few or none for couples, youth, people with pets, or for people who have active substance abuse issues.
- Who should manage the shelter system, and who should be responsible for determining how many and what kind of beds are needed, and who gets each bed?
- What is the relationship between shelter, detox and rehab, and what should it be?
- What should be the length of stay?
- How should the shelter system link to the back door?
- Do the centralized one-stop-shops and campuses really work? Are they more effective or less effective than a decentralized approach?
- If you want to fix your shelter system, where do you start? What is the first thing to take on, what is next, etc.?
Today we recognize that, if we are to end the problem of homelessness, we must transition from a program-based approach to a systems-based approach. Figuring out what the crisis system should look like is a crucial part of that, because it is sure to remain the front door and the point of assessment for further interventions. Re-tooling this system is absolutely critical, and something we are anxious to explore with you over the next year. But if you thought I would have answers to the questions above – not yet! We do, however, have a few ideas.
We firmly believe that the time a person spends in shelter should be very short. One key goal set by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act is that no one experience homelessness for a period longer than 30 days. Ideally, people should move through the shelter system fast. The faster people leave, the greater the turnover rate, the fewer the number of beds needed, and the greater the likelihood that the quality of shelters can be addressed, which is important, because right now the quality of shelters must be improved. In many places the standards remain very low.
To accomplish this, shelters should be a place of assessment, and shelter personnel should have a variety of tools to draw upon in order to provide the help people need to move on. More rapid re-housing tools would certainly facilitate this process, and people in the shelter system could be connected to community-based service slots. In short, shelter personnel could probably empower people in the shelter system to accomplish on their own many of the things that transitional housing and other back end interventions currently do for them.
These are some of the many things that we, at the Alliance, have been thinking about recently: how to target our resources better, how to retool programs to increase their effectiveness, how to move forward on ending youth homelessness, and how to improve our crisis systems.
Of course, I want to re-emphasize how important it is that we continue to advocate for meeting the needs of poor and homeless people, and how important it is that we make our voices heard. There is a national political debate going on about the role of government, and part of that debate concerns our mutual responsibility for each other and for the least among us. It is easy to feel like a mere observer in this debate. And if all you do is observe, that’s all you’ll be.
As I said earlier, if the people who care the most about this issue don’t speak out, who will? To make your voices heard you do not have to lobby. You do not have to be an expert on all the details of legislation. You just need to be able to express your concerns and those of your community. At present, our voices and our concerns are not being heard. If you speak up, your voice may not have an immediate impact. That’s why we need to keep speaking up, because if we don’t, I can guarantee you that we will not get anything for the people we care about.
Thank you so much for being with us at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. The conference is going to be terrific, and it is because of all of you. We at the National Alliance to End Homelessness are tremendously grateful, and as always we are deeply honored to be your partners in the effort to end homelessness.
Last week, advocates from across the country participated in Capitol Hill Day 2012 in conjunction with the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington, DC. Hundreds of conference attendees took advantage of the fact that they were in the nation’s capital to meet with their congressional delegations and educate them about homelessness in their communities and the ways in which federal policy can better support local efforts to prevent and end homelessness.
This is the third Capitol Hill Day I have planned in my time at the Alliance, and the level of participation and the dedication of this year’s conference attendees have made it the most impressive by far. Results and “report-backs” from meetings are still trickling in, so it’s too early to announce the full results of Capitol Hill Day 2012. I urge you to keep an eye on this blog next month for a full summary of the event and its immediate impact.
In the meantime, I’d like to highlight some preliminary results that we do have. Advocates attended a record of about 280 congressional meetings – an increase of about 22 percent compared to just two years ago. That’s incredible! And nearly 70 of those were with members of congress.
We are still calculating precisely how many people participated in all of these meetings, but the statistic I am most excited to share is this: participants from a record-breaking 44 states attended congressional meetings. This means that representatives from almost every one of the 47 states represented at the conference went to Capitol Hill last week to educate policymakers on the importance of ending homelessness.
As many of you know, next week will be my last at the Alliance, as my husband and I are moving to Boston so I can pursue a graduate degree. While I’m excited about this new chapter in my life, it is a bittersweet moment. I cannot possibly describe how much I will miss working with all the incredible practitioners, state and local officials, and other stakeholders I have come to know over the past several years.
It has been a true inspiration for me to see the dedication people in this field have to ending homelessness. While not all of the people with whom I have worked would describe themselves as advocates, they have demonstrated an impressive talent for educating policymakers about the role they must play in our efforts to end homelessness.
I will miss working with many of you on a daily basis, but this year’s Capitol Hill Day is just one more piece of evidence of the homeless assistance field’s strength, capacity, and commitment to ensuring that no man, woman, or child experiences homelessness.