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Problem solving in America : Homelessness as the next frontier

This past Thursday America celebrated its 243rd birthday!

America was founded on bold ideas. It was founded on a belief in liberty, on a belief that the status quo could change. That life could be better and people can prosper when given the freedom and opportunity to do so.

Since 1776, due to our insatiable appetite for progress, America has achieved great things. A man has walked on the moon, we invented the lightbulb, the internet and the airplane. We have also proven to be excellent problem solvers and stubborn negotiators.

The American way has been to identify problems and fix them. The combination of freedom of thought coupled with the ideals of independence and equality have led us – Americans – to change the course of society when needed.

In the past 243 years, wrongs have been righted and improvements have been made to ensure that the American ideals are met. Women achieved the right to vote, we abolished slavery, and gay marriage is now legal in every state. We have embedded problem solving into our culture.

Now is our time to solve homelessness. We can and we will. 

Without delving into political analysis it is easy to note that our problem solving spirit has taken a hit. Our tendency has diverted from taking on problems with the verve to solve them to placing blame and pointing fingers. These days we rarely seek long term solutions because we are distracted by short term fixes.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s cities across America were developing 10 year plans to end homelessness. There was energy around solutions and taking a bold stance to solve homelessness. After decades of struggle due to rising housing costs and increasing rates of addiction and mental illness coupled with inadequate access to care, we have not met our goal.

Now the reports from major urban centers talk of third world-like conditions of filth and disease on the street where encampments have become the norm. It is shocking that in America in 2019 people are living in such deplorable conditions. It is even MORE shocking that many policy makers and citizens accept these conditions as inevitable.

It is not time to give up. It is not time to abandon the ideal that homelessness can be solved. In fact, we are better equipped than ever to create solutions. We have data on who is experiencing homelessness, we have evidence for what solutions work, and we have the tools to replicate promising models from one community to another.  Like many problems America has faced in the past we need to re-set, to see the problem through a new lens.

Drawing from past examples, we need a ground swell of leadership and a tipping point that brings the majority of people to a consensus. We need to not only agree what the root of the problem is and that it must be fixed BUT to have a collective revelation that the problem never should have occurred in the first place. We need to de-politicize the problem as much as possible through identifying the advantages of solving the problem for all involved. And when politics are impossible to avoid, you need strong leaders to stand up not just to outline the problem but to put forth and support real solutions.

As you know – the problem in our case is homelessness.

From talking to stakeholders from across the country, I believe we are close to the tipping point. There is a great hunger for true efforts to solve homelessness. Influencers and citizens are developing a perspective on homelessness that we cannot accept the status quo and we need to approach the problem with renewed vigor and a new strategy. The deplorable conditions on the street are simply unacceptable.

There is growing recognition that in order to move forward, we must get beyond homelessness as a problem to simply clean up or put out of view. Or, conversely, that homelessness is only a bricks and mortar problem that we can build our way out of. Neither is true.

We need to work upstream to prevent homelessness. But recognizing that some people will slip through the cracks end up on the streets requires that we have swift interventions to assess the individual needs and capacities of people experiencing homelessness. We must have methods through assessments by trained staff to help navigate and to match people to the appropriate resource quickly and effectively. Communities need to develop a mindset of urgency and a comprehensive repertoire of housing options ranging from short term supports, to creative models like congregate living, and rapid re-housing funds. Supports such as access to employment, job training, health care and addiction recovery must be available to complement the housing models to provide a path to stability.

Bridge House has taken the lead with this approach through our Path to Home and Ready to Work models in Boulder and in Aurora. But that is not enough. We are helping to spur a movement by sharing what we know.

Let’s follow in the tradition of American problem solving. Let’s apply the American spirit of progress and pursuit of prosperity and take on homelessness as the next big issue in our country.

Let’s get it done.

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