Effort to End Homelessness
Homelessness is a national problem that can only be solved at the local level. But while some communities are actually solving the problem of homelessness, other communities are watching the problem grow much worse.
At Lead Homelessness, we have carefully studied the communities that are effectively confronting the challenges of homelessness, and we have been able to isolate the 12 governing “dynamics” that have set these communities apart. These are the same dynamics that we utilize when working with community leaders to deal with the problem of homelessness in their respective environments, and we have found a direct correlation between the number of “dynamics” employed and the level of success that is achieved. In other words, communities that embrace a few of these dynamics will have some success, while communities that embrace most of these dynamics will have notable success. But communities that adopt all 12 of these “best practices” will find themselves effectively ending homelessness in their jurisdictions.
MAYORS AND ELECTED OFFICIALS
Personal involvement by the top elected officials in a community
The problem of homelessness cannot be solved in any community without the commitment and hands-on involvement of the key governmental leaders within that community, especially mayors and other top elected officials who drive the community’s agenda. Homelessness is a problem that has defied a solution for decades. So without the cooperation and wholehearted endorsement of those who control a community’s purse strings and policies, progress in the fight against homelessness is not possible.
Mayors and key government officials control the allocation of a community’s tangible and intangible resources. Mayors and key government officials set the agendas for the cities that they lead. Mayors and key government officials define the dialogue within their respective communities and shape the policies that dictate the direction their communities will travel in the future. Without the participation of the top elected officials in a community and without their visible and enthusiastic support, limited progress will be made in a community’s efforts to stem the tide of homelessness.
A strong and expansive engagement by leaders within the business community
Business leaders play a different role in their communities than elected officials or service providers, so they must play a different role in any local campaign to end homelessness. Business leaders are the civic “trailblazers” who drive everything meaningful that happens in the cities and towns where they live, and they are the people who remain “objective” when it comes to community endeavors.
Because business leaders are not running for political office and because they are not managing the nonprofit organizations that serve the needs of the homeless, they stand in a unique position to be the catalysts that can propel social change forward at the local level, and they stand in a unique position from which they can demand accountability from those who have been entrusted to solve homelessness locally. Business leaders are not seeking votes and they are not seeking contributions, so these men and women are guided simply by their interest in the betterment of their communities, and consequently they are prone to support strategies that promise to generate real results and sustain those results and build upon them. Real change on homelessness, therefore, rarely takes root in a community unless local business leaders are involved in that change.
The harnessing of the moral voice of faith leaders
Faith leaders are known for creating and leading organizations that are committed to helping the homeless. These organizations feed, clothe, and encourage the homeless every day. But faith leaders also have the potential to be some of the most powerful protagonists for change in any community, because these men and women possess both the ability and the moral standing to call a community out of its state of complacency on any social issue.
Although the role of faith in America is changing right before our eyes, almost three-fourths of the American people still identify themselves as “religious.” Faith, therefore, remains one of the most powerful driving forces in American culture and should be offered a seat at the table whenever grassroots change is being sought.
In addition, homelessness is one of those few problems on which a working consensus is possible. Although Democrats and Republicans, for instance, may not agree on the best methods for combatting the problem, both parties can agree that homelessness is a problem and that we should work together to solve it. Similarly, the various faiths that dot the American landscape may disagree on most things theological. But all of them can come together around the issue of homelessness, because all of them have some strong things to say about the poor.
So faith leaders, once educated on the subject of homelessness, can be some of the most powerful voices for social change because faith leaders can speak directly to the moral implications of not responding to human need. Faith leaders can figuratively stand on a street corner or on a soapbox and summon a community to moral action.
Building partnerships with communities that have already made progress
There is nothing new under the sun. What works in one community will work in another community, and what has failed in the past will fail in the future, because homelessness is virtually the same in every community in America. In every community, for instance, you will find the poor who are struggling to pay for suitable housing. In every community you will find seniors who are homeless due to disabilities. In every community you will find veterans who served our country with honor and yet are grappling with the mental wounds of war that have left them unable to function in society. In every community you will find people with mental illness who wander the streets as they attempt to stay dry, stay warm, and stay fed.
One of the biggest problems in combatting homelessness is that just about every community believes it is unique in its struggle against homelessness. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, all communities are basically the same in this regard and the problem of homelessness is basically the same. So strategies that have worked in one locality will usually work in another. Local leaders, however, must learn to find those partner communities that can encourage and guide them, and they must learn to draw from these “sister” communities and collaborate with them to recreate success in their own cities and towns.
There is no need to keep reinventing the wheel. Strategies that have failed in one community will probably fail in others, and strategies that have worked in one place will probably work elsewhere. But communities must make an effort to collaborate with one another in order to isolate those tactics that yield the best results. When it comes to homelessness, all localities face the same challenge.
The careful analysis of ongoing expenditures and future financial needs
Any solution to homelessness will depend heavily on money, because money makes change possible and money is the most effective antidote for many aspects of a social problem. Consequently, before a community can solve the problem of homelessness, it is necessary for that community to fully understand what it is currently spending on homelessness, how it might better appropriate those existing funds, and what resources it may need in the future to solve the problem of homelessness permanently.If a society cannot measure a problem, that society has no ability to solve that problem. And money is the only accurate and objective measure of a community’s commitment to a cause and a community’s progress in addressing that cause. So the community that would solve its homeless problem is the community that knows what the problem is costing on a daily and yearly basis and what results are being derived through those expenditures, and the community that would solve its homeless problem is the community that knows what it would take financially to completely finish the task. Deeply entrenched social problems are best solved when business principles guide the process, and the most fundamental business principle is a grasp of the financial aspects of solving a particular problem as opposed to allowing that problem to continue.
The adoption of the “housing first” model as the best strategy for combatting homelessness
No community in the United States has ever significantly reduced homelessness without utilizing the “housing first” model, which has been adopted by the federal government as its official strategy for dealing with homelessness. The “housing first” approach to homelessness is an approach that focuses on housing homeless individuals immediately, then providing those individuals with the social services they need to address the original causes of their homelessness (e.g. physical disabilities, mental illness, drug addiction, employment, health issues). Some individuals who are homeless receive short-term assistance (rapid re-housing) while others with disabilities and no way to ever achieve self-sufficiency receive long-term subsidies.
The traditional model for combatting homelessness has been a model that requires homeless individuals to complete various stages of rehabilitation in a programmatic setting with the belief that the person can move systematically toward self-sufficiency. But this traditional model, used in communities for two decades, has proven to be both ineffective and costly, because it is based on faulty assumptions regarding the ability of the homeless, especially the chronically homeless, to lift themselves out of their plight. Research shows that it is far more effective for communities to direct their resources toward helping individuals get into housing and then working toward various forms of self-sufficiency after they are housed. From the security and predictability of a stable housing environment, recently housed individuals can work to solve the problems that placed them on the streets in the first place.
Public advocacy that changes beliefs
Although we live in the wealthiest nation on earth during the peak of our nation’s prosperity, we have not solved the problem of homelessness in the United States. And there is one overriding reason so little progress has been made on this issue: As a society we simply don’t know the truth about homelessness, and we have wrong ideas about the homeless. As brutal as this statement may seem, it is absolutely true. Our ignorance as a society is the underlying reason that homelessness persists and the primary reason that a solution to the problem seems almost unattainable.
It is obvious, therefore, that attitudes must be changed if solutions are to be found. If mayors and elected officials are to lead local campaigns to end homelessness, these civic leaders must understand the nature of the problem they will be facing and the reasons the homeless need our help. If philanthropists are to underwrite much of the work, they need to know why their financial backing is needed and why it can make a real difference.
So if a community ever expects to drive change that can significantly alter its local homeless landscape, that community will need to change the prevailing beliefs of its leaders, its citizens, its media executives, and all the stakeholders who have the ability to influence the steps that the community will be taking to address its homeless problem. An advocacy campaign, therefore, is a necessary requirement in this effort.In America, we “do” what we believe. In America, we spend our money according to what we believe. In cities and counties and states across our nation, we prioritize our efforts according to what we believe, especially those efforts that require our resources. So if a community believes that the homeless are “homeless by choice” or that the homeless are “lazy and just don’t want to work,” that community’s actions, policies, and investments will reflect its misguided beliefs. But if a community understands the truth about homelessness—that the vast majority of the homeless are not homeless by choice and that without our help these people will never be able to achieve self-sufficiency—then that community’s perspective will change and its approach to the problem will change. And that means that homelessness itself will change.
THE PHILANTHROPIC COMMUNITY
The active participation of the community’s philanthropic sector
Large communities tend to have a robust philanthropic community. So in order to solve the homeless problem in any particular city, that city’s philanthropists will have to be actively involved in the process through both collaboration and funding. This dynamic is especially important to success because the nonprofit organizations that serve the needs of the homeless will ultimately follow the lead of the philanthropists who support them. So if a community’s largest funders of charitable work are both the architects and the largest financial backers of a community’s unified strategy to end homelessness, most of the organizations involved in the work of helping the homeless will be willing to work together to make that effort succeed.
Because the leaders of a city’s homeless initiative will have to create a “marketplace” for change before real change can occur in their communities, the support of the philanthropic community will be essential. For one thing, the leaders of a local homeless initiative will need the fungible resources that only philanthropists can provide. Obviously, government resources will be more plentiful than private resources in the effort to end homelessness, but the private dollars provided by philanthropic organizations will offer homeless advocates a more flexible pool of cash to meet unforeseen needs throughout their initiative. In addition, private monies are more quickly accessible than government funds and are more easily diverted toward urgent opportunities that can propel the initiative forward. And finally, nonprofit organizations will follow the lead of their funders in order to obtain the cash that they need. So if the private funders are “on board” with a particular citywide strategy, the service providers will support that strategy, as well.
VETERANS AND THE CHRONICALLY HOMELESS
A focus on veterans and the chronically homeless
There are four categories of homeless people who need help in communities across our nation:
- Homeless veterans
- The chronically homeless (those who have been homeless for at least 1 year or homeless four times in 3 years and who have a physical or mental disability)
- Families struggling in poverty
- Homeless seniors and youths who are vulnerable due to their respective stations in life
While all these people need our help and deserve our help and while all of them benefit from housing solutions, a community must build a foundation for success by starting with those people who are the most visible, most vulnerable, and most costly for the community in which they live.
Veterans and the chronically homeless cost our cities and towns astronomical amounts of money each year and are an incredible burden on the moral conscience of a community. In addition, these are the men and women who have been on the streets the longest and are the most vulnerable to sickness, violence, and death due to their mental illnesses and physical disabilities. Veterans and the chronically homeless are also the most visible among the homeless population.
Strides forward in reducing the number of homeless veterans and the number of chronically homeless men and women, although not the end goal, could create a sense of progress in a community that can make the long-range goal of ending homelessness much easier to attain.
The creation of a permanent governing structure that can continue the work
The end goal of the first nine dynamics is to create a leadership organization within a community that can preserve and build upon gains that are realized through a collaborative approach to homelessness. The process of ending homelessness is not a short-term operation; it is a new way of “governing” the local homeless problem. In the same way that a community’s top leaders must create a structured approach to solving problems related to transportation, tourism, economic development, and the other necessities of infrastructure, that community must also create the systems and structures that can provide long-term solutions for homelessness. Once homelessness is addressed through collaboration and advocacy, cross-sector leaders must find a way to work together in a formal and perpetual manner in order to “manage” the problem of homelessness the same way that a city would “manage” its drinking water, garbage collection, code enforcement, or public education. And while this may be a radically new way of doing business for most people involved in the work of combatting homelessness, it is the only way that a community can make real progress in this fight.
All the various sectors in a community are affected by homelessness in some way, and each of these sectors will have a different paradigm regarding the problem and the best ways to deal with the problem. Therefore, to successfully combat homelessness, top leaders in local government must collaborate with top leaders from the business community, the faith community, the philanthropic community, the Housing Authority, the Veterans Administration, the local Continuum of Care, law enforcement, the nonprofit service providers, mental health and healthcare, education, and the criminal justice system in order to assess homelessness annually, formulate strategies for dealing with the problem, coordinate resources in a way that can solve the problem, and create accountability for the money that is spent and the programs that are implemented.
Consequently, a permanent governing structure is the best way to hold each stakeholder group accountable while fulfilling the ultimate mandate of ending homelessness within a community. And that governing body must annually ask itself some hard questions in an effort to accurately assess the progress it has made:
- Where do we currently stand in our efforts to end homelessness?
- What does success for our community look like during the year ahead?
- What is our strategy this coming year for blending our efforts to achieve this common goal?
- How can we combine our resources to achieve this singular goal?
- How do we hold each other accountable for our various assignments in this process?
The utilization of data to assess progress and to create transparency and accountability.
Numbers, when handled honestly and objectively, do not lie. Data, therefore, must be constantly utilized in the war against homelessness to give engaged communities a true picture of where they stand in real time in their efforts to deal with the problem. Using data, a governing organization can create the success that its members have gathered to create. Using data, a governing organization can create the transparency and accountability that is necessary for collaboration among stakeholders and for successful fundraising.
If a community cannot measure a problem, that community can never truly solve that problem. But transparency and accountability based on hard data will always yield good results, because good, accurate data—data that tells the story of real people and the real urgency of saving their lives—can show homeless strategists where to invest their time and money, what their next steps must be, and how they can hold themselves and local providers accountable for real results.
A resource strategy to actually end homelessness
This dynamic is positioned last in the list for a reason, because the implementation of this dynamic is contingent upon the successful implementation of the first eleven dynamics of social change. When a community’s top elected officials are dedicated to solving the homeless problem, when business leaders are finally bringing accountability into the discussion, when an aggressive advocacy campaign has successfully changed local beliefs on homelessness, and when a governing structure has been created to devise real strategies and to make homelessness a meaningful focus of the community at large, then a case can be made for a community to invest the adequate resources that can effectively end homelessness in that locality (create a system where homelessness is rare, brief, and a one-time occurrence for those who experience it).
Nobody likes to spend taxpayer dollars, and nobody likes to raise millions of dollars from the philanthropic community, especially if that process has to be repeated year after year with limited success. But when a community gets to the place where it can show that the chronically homeless will never be able to help themselves, that homelessness has real solutions, and that we can invest money toward this worthy cause in a smart and businesslike manner and in many cases can actually save money, then it becomes easy to justify the expenditure of a proper amount of resources to fund a local homeless initiative on an ongoing basis.
The financial solution for homelessness could be derived by the creation of a new, recurring public revenue stream. This funding stream could also be created by bundling philanthropic donations from numerous contributors each year. But this process would only be appropriate for the community that has implemented or substantially implemented all of the preceding dynamics in the march toward ending homelessness.