We Can End Homelessness

Isabel McDevitt – October 2016

We can end homelessness. There is no doubt that some in our community will experience homelessness due to circumstances – loss of job, family breakup, untreated mental illness – but it need not be forever.  We can create a community where we have quick interventions and real opportunities so that no person, or family, should have to call the streets home.

After 18 years in the field, here are my thoughts for how to address homelessness in Boulder. The good news is we actually have some of these principles in place, what we require is political will and financial resources to fully realize them.

First, we need a coordinated continuum that works – one that spans emergency services to permanent housing, one that is proportional to the needs of our homeless community and in synch with broader community values. Our continuum must include access to emergency day and night shelter. Sheltering not only saves lives but also ensures that homeless people have a safe, legal place to be so that public spaces do not become defacto shelters. We must create a culture of engagement and accountability by coupling emergency services with opportunities and expectations in a balanced, trauma informed way. This process ensures that people who need and want help get it, and that those who don’t aren’t draining our scarce resources.

Currently, the Bridge House Resource Center provides such a system through a “welcome meeting” assessment process and through service coordination with our partners at Mental Health Partners, Clinica, EFAA, Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, BOHO, Municipal Court and more. The goal is to know, to the person, who is experiencing homelessness in Boulder so we can help them. It is national best practice for communities to have “by name” lists for their most vulnerable, heavy users of services in order to focus on transitioning them to stability. We have this list, as well as intake data on all who use day services. We have great detail on the 400 regular clients with whom we are working on service plans. We need coordination to use our data to create a continuum that works. We need public policy that prioritizes interventions and outcomes for our regulars.

Second, to be effective in ending homelessness we must focus on how and where we provide exits from emergency services to housing. In Boulder we need more pathways out of homelessness such as program-based transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and affordable housing units which act as both a homeless prevention strategy and way to house those who are homeless and can stabilize in employment and services. We must customize our response, one size doesn’t fit all. For too long we have tried to simplify the issue of homelessness with one response. Some can be successful with a short intervention of emergency shelter, some need housing first, some need congregate living with a community of support. Some need all three or something else entirely. While we have grown programs such as Ready to Work which offers employment and housing, the 1175 Lee Hill housing-first units, and we participate in the Denver metro region’s coordinated entry system, we have a snake whose belly keeps swelling as the causes of homelessness grow, including rising housing costs, stagnant wages, high rates of substance abuse and a mental health system that can’t keep pace with need. We must face this reality and define our targets including cost effective solutions such as congregate living models. The more exits we have, the less emergency services we need.

Homelessness can be temporary, even prevented, for those who find themselves on the street. We know what works, we have data to develop the proportional response, we need the political will to execute.

Lastly, if we keep talking about homeless people as different, as not adequate, we can’t create a culture of opportunity. We must integrate people, believe they can succeed, and not to ostracize them based on their housing status. We need to embrace them in the workforce and create housing that is affordable and attainable. I can’t go to Whole Foods or shop along Pearl Street without seeing a Ready to Work graduate. Just this weekend, I ran into a former heavy user of day shelter buying groceries at King Soopers. He was someone I feared would die on the streets and now he is housed, enjoying the mundane tasks of daily life.

Addressing homelessness is complicated but we have a choice. I choose to believe we can end homelessness one person at a time.

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