Advocates for the Homeless Re-Energized by Housing First Approach

This important update is from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Date: 20 June 2007
DATE: Spring 2007, Vol. 26, No. 1
AUTHOR: Tom Austin

Despite billions spent nationwide on a homeless assistance system, homelessness has increased over the past two decades. The latest estimates indicate three-quarters of a million people in the country have nowhere to call home. Yet homeless advocates are not discouraged. They point to bold new initiatives underway in hundreds of communities and a radical shift in the way to address the problem.

Walk through any major downtown area in the country and the shortcomings of the homeless system are evident. Where you find homeless individuals you find emergency shelters, soup kitchens, and transitional housing. Talk to any person who has lived on the streets for a long period, the so-called “chronically homeless.” Many fear for their own safety and prefer sleeping in doorways, alleys, and park benches rather than shelters. At the same time, many with obvious physical and mental disabilities are left on their own to seek out far-flung services.

And yet it was clear at a March 2007 Congressional briefing, hosted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, that some new thinking has some local communities hopeful.

“There is a buzz in city halls and state legislatures about homelessness, says Robert V. Hess, commissioner, New York City Department of Homeless Services.

“Mayors and governors are focusing on this issue like never before.” Hess leads a 2,000-member staff focused on overcoming homelessness in New York City through a five-year initiative to add 12,000 units of housing while emphasizing prevention and supportive housing.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that over the past five years, hundreds of communities have launched long-term plans to end homelessness. The plans are breaking new ground with the degree of cooperation between public officials, nonprofit groups, faith-based groups and businesses.

Denver is a city taking bold steps. Mayor John Hickenlooper is two years in to a 10-year plan to end homelessness and has challenged each area religious organization to sponsor a homeless family. His office has reported that in the first year of plan implementation, “423 new units of housing have been added, 701 homeless people have been assisted in finding work, 677 individuals received treatment services, 156 families received eviction assistance, and 121 families have been partnered with faith based mentoring teams.”

In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin recently helped facilitate a summit of 70 faith leaders and homeless service providers “to empower faith communities to increase their engagement with homeless persons and the agencies that serve them throughout metro Atlanta.” Mayor Franklin has pointed out that rising foreclosures in Atlanta have worsened the homelessness problem.

Placing “Housing First”

Many long-term plans are taking a “Housing First” approach. Pioneered by innovative nonprofits in New York and Los Angeles, the idea behind Housing First is that homeless individuals and families respond best after they are secure in their own housing. This is a much different approach to an emphasis on shelters and social services as a stepping stone to permanent housing.

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, sums up the latest thinking in the field: “The fundamental driver of homelessness is a lack of permanent, affordable housing. Communities all across the United States are working to end homelessness, but without the creation of new affordable units, low-income individuals and families will continue to experience homelessness. Nonprofit developers of affordable housing and local groups concerned about homelessness have a unique opportunity to form potent partnerships that can both house homeless households and build the case for more affordable housing.”

Roman says recent decreases in homelessness in cities with long-term plans, such as St. Louis; Portland, Oregon; Norfolk, Virginia; and San Francisco “give us some hope that some of the interventions are working.”

NeighborWorks® Organizations’ Contribution

Forty-five NeighborWorks® organizations around the country are working directly in local partnerships to provide emergency shelter and transitional housing and services for the homeless. For example:

The award winning Homeward Bound program, offered by Neighborhood Housing Services of Boise, Idaho, includes 31 units for homeless families scattered throughout various neighborhoods of Boise. In Austin, Texas, Foundation Communities runs two affordable apartment communities for persons and families with extremely low incomes, half of whom come from a homeless situation.The IMPACT! Group, located in Duluth, Georgia, offers immediate assistance to individuals or families who are homeless, as well as transitional housing and a host of services.

Bob Bohnas, a recovering drug addict, said he owes his turnaround to help he received from the Primavera Foundation, a Tucson, Arizona NeighborWorks® organization that provides assistance to the homeless and those on the verge of being homeless. “They [Primavera] don’t give you a handout, they give you a hand up,” Bohnas told the Arizona Star.

In addition, the NeighborWorks® Training Institute offers a class on counseling the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. This course is designed to train homeownership counselors and other agencies that are addressing the issue of homelessness in their communities. For more information, visit www.nw.org/training.