Solving Homelessness isn’t a Zero Sum Game – We should be looking for the “AND” not the “EITHER/OR”

In the fight to end homelessness we must leave no stone unturned. No tool in the box. No player on the bench.

The causes of homelessness are real. They are formidable. To eradicate homelessness it will require wide scale, systemic change. This will take time, money, and political will.

As we shoot for this ideal, we should not delay in developing a robust, multi-faceted system that is ready to effectively and efficiently help people who find themselves on the street. Let’s build it now.

Last week the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness released a new strategyExpanding the Toolbox – which calls for a broader approach to addressing  homelessness. The strategy outlines the need for models, services, and methods to build upon what is working and to add where interventions are lacking. Specifically it outlines and makes recommendations in each of these areas – Read more here

  • The Importance and Power of The Dignity of Work
  • Mental Health and Trauma Informed Care Are Critical
  • Affordable Construction Leads to Affordable Housing
  • Prevention Will Save Money While Reducing Trauma
  • The Need for Population Specific Programming
  • Renewed Focus on Racial Disparities
  • Promotion of Alternatives to Criminalizing People Experiencing Homelessness
  • Importance of National Emergency Readiness

Here are some thoughts –

  • It is notable that this body – the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) which includes 19 Federal Agencies from Labor to Justice – demonstrates the need for homelessness to be addressed collectively, holistically by collaborations representing stakeholders with varied skills, resources and investments. This kind of cross-agency work is fundamental to create a continuum that works.
  • The strategy offers data showing that despite major investments in housing, street homelessness in many communities is on rise and has risen 20.5% nationally over the past 5 years. While this may be true, we should not look at this as criticism of current efforts but as a reminder that given the diversity of people experiencing homelessness, the myriad systemic causes of homelessness, and the complexity of the issue, there is NO SINGLE solution that could possibly work for all.
  • Solving homelessness should not be a Zero Sum Game. We need to create solutions for those who have been left out of traditional housing interventions yet are not resolving off the streets themselves.

    “A one-size-fits-all approach can actually harm many populations experiencing homelessness that need and benefit from customized, trauma-informed wraparound services. The federal toolbox must include approaches that respect the unique circumstances of each individual and family experiencing homelessness.”

    With this statement, the USICH must advocate for Federal resources maintaining funding for what works while increasing funding for new initiatives that support this statement.

The strategy outlines several interventions that we, through our Ready to Work program, have championed for many years.

To name a few –

  • The emphasis in the strategy on the importance of work as not only a source of income but empowerment is significant. Though this may seem obvious, rarely in the discussion of solutions for homelessness is employment so explicitly highlighted and the connection of the need to actually combine the stability of housing with jobs and training so clear. We are eager to share our experience with leveraging employment as a fundamental tool in addressing homelessness.
  • The recognition in the strategy that transitional housing, supportive programing and re-entry planning for people returning from incarceration is needed to successfully reintegrate back into the community in a cost effective and humane way is already a tenet of our Ready to Work program. We look forward to seeing more resources in support of congregate living and models that not only reduce criminal recidivism but that provide meaningful opportunities for people returning from incarceration.
  • The call in strategy for eliminating racial inequities by not only recognizing the over-representation of people of color experiencing homelessness but by actively working to reduce this disparity through housing, support and employment opportunities are already core values of our work and we too want to see them become the norm.

Importantly, a criticism of this new strategy is that it does not offer enough credit to the impact of the Housing First approach which provides permanent housing for the most vulnerable on the street. The Housing First model should be celebrated for its incredible impact on the lives of those it serves – about 25% of people experiencing homelessness. For many Housing First is life-saving and this is significant. What this strategy rightly points out is that by design Housing First is not an inclusive approach. This is because it is designed to prioritize people based on criteria related to age, health, status and other factors. This means that for those served it can be very effective. But for those ineligible they are out of luck.

For the past 22 years, I have seen first-hand the challenges on the street for the roughly 75% of people who do not qualify for Housing First and yet are in crisis nonetheless – extremely destitute with no prospects for income, housing or support. From an on-the-ground provider point-of-view it is refreshing to see that there is now a recognition that we need to expand the options for people experiencing homelessness.

In summary, the strategy states – To expand the toolbox and reduce homelessness; Federal, state, and local government programs should increase flexibility, encourage innovation and focus on outcomes.  Barriers should be removed for different and innovative approaches tailored to unique populations and communities. This means letting everyone lend a hand: faith-based agencies, housing first as well as non-housing first programs, transitional housing efforts and multicomponent linear programs. 

This is a step in the right direction. We do not need to agree on every solution but we do need to agree that some problems, like homelessness, require a variety of tools in our toolbox.

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