It is cold. Really cold.
It is 5AM and I am volunteering for the Point in Time Survey (PIT). The PIT is a tool used by cities across the country on a single winter evening each year to count the number of homeless men, women and children in each community. These numbers are used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to determine where funding should be allocated for housing.
As we walk the streets, comb the bus station, and peer under bridges by Boulder Creek, I am reminded about the complexity of homelessness. I talk to Elizabeth in Starbucks. She has been homeless on and off for 4 years, has bi-polar disorder, and is trying to get her life together in order to reunite with her 13 month old daughter currently living in Foster Care. She is surprisingly energetic and optimistic. I am overwhelmed by her story and feel almost silly trying to capture it in the standard PIT form. But I stay focused. How do I help her get the process started? Step one – she needs an ID so she can get a job. I tell her to come to Bridge House at 9:00AM to get started on her plan.
Walking out of Starbucks as the sun comes up, I juxtapose my conversation with Elizabeth in my mind with the conversations we have been having at the City of Boulder’s Homeless Planning Group and Boulder County 10 Year Plan to Address Homelessness Advisory Board. We are focused on identifying housing gaps, understanding inclusionary housing policies, specifying the numbers of units needed to reduce chronic homelessness, analyzing spreadsheets on goals vs actuals for affordable housing. All worthwhile but for Elizabeth she needs something simpler. She needs a path, an opportunity, short-term stability which can lead to long-term self-sufficiency.
This early morning I am reminded about the two levels on which I work – the human level and the big picture. Bridging that gap is the key. For each person surveyed by PIT there is a story. A unique situation resulting in a circumstance we call homelessness. Each survey subject is a human being – with hopes, dreams, fears and flaws. We must reconcile this gap – the gap between stories and data – in order to plan, to provide and to be systematic in how we effective address homelessness with the continuum of housing and services to meet people where they are an help them progress.
So how do we create that continuum of services that can end homelessness? I subscribe to the “three-legged stool” approach. We all know from our own lives we need housing, income, and social supports. Homeless people are no different. Depending on where one falls on the spectrum of challenges and capacity how the thee-legged stool is built will vary but the principle stays the same. For homeless people to stabilize they need a place to stay, access to income through employment or benefits they are eligible for such as disability or social security, and case management support to help them navigate what can often be a complicated system. For someone experiencing homelessness this can initially be program-based shelter coupled with employment and supports. To move people along the continuum we then need permanent affordable housing accessible with income through benefits or employment and community supports to nurture them in the transition from homeless to housed. This requires diligence and data to advocate for need. It requires the work on the client side and the system side of our equation.
Some people in this field only operate on one side of the spectrum either in the trenches with clients or behind a desk looking at data. Both are equally important parts of a team. I feel fortunate that I can walk in both shoes. This keeps me committed, motivated and striving for more.