02/07/2013 - On The Front Lines: Mayors and Ending Homelessness

Mayors are on the front line of homelessness in America. It is their city departments, budgets, hospitals, and residents who experience the effects of homelessness in the most tangible way, whether it is their own lives or whether it affects their livelihood. As I said to the Council in December, we can’t solve homelessness nationally unless we solve it locally. We at USICH put an enormous premium on understanding the work being done at the community level and the perspective of Mayors.

It was my honor, then, to be able to address the US Conference of Mayors’ Hunger and Homelessness Task Force, chaired by Mayor Bellamy of Asheville, NC, at the 81st Annual Winter Meeting January 17-19. This group of Mayors plays a particularly important role by informing USCM policies toward homelessness, and provides leadership and urgency to the issues. Their Annual Hunger and Homelessness Survey provides the nation with a clear picture of homelessness in the cities represented on this task force, and adds to the information we all need in order to see and solve the problem.

I was also particularly honored to share with the Mayors the importance of their leadership in ending homelessness, because for fourteen years I worked with community leaders and service providers in Columbus, OH as the Director of the Community Shelter Board. This public-private collaborative to end homelessness was made even stronger because it is aligned with Mayor Michael Coleman’s vision to create livable neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown, and a strong local economy. Ending homelessness is and was integral to his goals for the city, and his leadership on this issue made our organization even stronger and better able to serve those in Columbus struggling with homelessness. 

Mayors across the country have stepped up as leaders in this work in the last decade, especially in ending chronic homelessness. This focus has helped to decrease chronic homelessness by ten percent from 2009-2012, and by nearly 20 percent since 2007. Along the way communities have learned some important lessons on what it will take to make progress on both chronic homelessness and homelessness across all populations, which I shared with the Mayors on the Task Force. I think it’s important for all of us involved in community-level work, including Mayors, local government staff, service providers, and advocates, to reflect on what we’ve learned so we can move forward with smart and proven strategies.

Housing First

Rather than first expecting people experiencing homelessness to enter treatment to become clean and sober then graduating to housing as a reward for completing a program, Housing First begins with housing as the foundation that enables the individual to become stable and therefore address employment and treatment needs from the stability of a non-time-limited apartment. Cities that have been successful at decreasing chronic homelessness, like Worcester, Massachusetts, take this approach throughout their system. 

Use resources strategically

In this tight budget environment, community-wide and cross-government strategic planning and collaboration is more important than ever. We will only move the needle across all populations if resources at the community level are directed towards strategies that are most cost-effective, like rapid re-housing and transition-in-place, with an emphasis on targeting the most intensive and cost interventions strictly to those who need them most. In Minneapolis, MN and Hennepin County, their single office on homelessness has developed solid assessments that determine whether families need short term intervention or most robust long-term intervention like permanent supportive housing. This helps ensure that an intervention is rightly-sized to a family’s need.

Take a systems-level approach, with mainstream resources as a key component

This is not a fight we can win with targeted homeless programs alone, so we must work across silos to bring together targeted homeless programs with mainstream housing and services. In Boston, Mayor Menino’s “Leading the Way Home” initiative built a collaboration between the State and across community mainstream and homeless programs to increase access to permanent housing and supportive services. The Mayor’s office worked with the Boston Housing Authority to allocate 500 vouchers to assist residents in exiting emergency shelter, while the state matched funds for case management for families to receive ongoing supportive services. 

Creating more permanent supportive housing and targeting it to those with the highest needs works and is cost-effective

Permanent supportive housing is the solution to chronic homelessness. To reach the goals of ending Veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015, it is important that local communities both increase the stock of permanent supportive housing but also target permanent supportive housing to chronically homeless adults, families, and Veterans. The leadership of Mayors and local leaders is critical, as cities are the focus of housing development and can bring HUD resources like HOME to the table when paired with State housing agency resources like Low Income Housing Tax Credits. While there has been a dramatic increase in the stock of permanent supportive housing, only 36 percent of those units are dedicated to people experiencing chronic homelessness. Shifting those new investments to those with highest needs will ensure that these intensive resources are used most effectively.

While these are just some of the important lessons we’ve learned, taking these lessons and ensuring local programs and systems reflect them is critical to community-level success this year and in the years to come.  As I shared these lessons with Mayors from across the country, I felt re-energized: the commitment of these Mayors and the residents they represent is what will make the goals of Opening Doors a reality. 

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