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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.
The commitment to connecting with people in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, North Carolina was evident during their Point-in-Time (PIT) count, starting in the evening on January 30th and ending late the next day. While temperatures reached an unseasonably warm 71 degrees earlier in the day, by the time the volunteers gathered at Bethesda Center for coffee, snacks, and training, the temperature had dipped to 54 degrees, with driving rains and threats of tornados and flooding giving an even deeper sense of urgency to the work the volunteers were embarking on.
“This is a search and rescue operation!” stated Teri Hairston, Program Assistant for the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness at the United Way of Forsyth County, during the training. “We see this as a chance to connect with every person who is homeless, and even if we’re just planting a seed for later, we use what we learn tonight to help everyone get into housing”
Community partners, led by the Homeless Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, worked for months to plan for the count, bringing in a diverse range of people and agencies to ensure that every detail was covered. This year, the community was also one of the nine communities involved in the Youth Count! initiative, which involved a distinctly different strategy than the outdoor count. Together, these two initiatives helped to create a comprehensive picture of homelessness in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.
I was honored to be able to join the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition in their Homeless Census on January 24 and 25. I left especially impressed by the efforts to make sure that people whose homelessness may be invisible in our communities were recognized and counted. I spent those two days with a variety of teams with distinct and specific purposes: together these four experiences give a good snapshot of the many facets of a PIT count that help us to collect comprehensive and accurate data on this population. I was honored to be a part of this work.
Covering Every Street and Alley
Deployed from Catholic Charities Plaza along Las Vegas' Corridor of Hope at about 1:30 am, my teammates, Lawrence Rivers and Willie Lee Reed, and I spent the next several hours walking every block of a neighborhood adjacent to Las Vegas' downtown core: a mix of office, multifamily housing, and single-family homes that is also markedly affected by foreclosure and abandoned buildings. Lawrence and Willie Lee, both of whom have experienced homelessness in Las Vegas, were invaluable guides through these darkened streets and alleys. Their expertise helped us to identify secluded locations where it was likely people might be sleeping. They also helped us connect with other people also walking through the quiet neighborhood who, rather than counting, were looking for a safe, peaceful spot where they might be able to find some rest. Lawrence and Willie Lee also deepened my understanding of the array of housing and services options available in Las Vegas, using their knowledge to help a scared-looking young man we came upon at about 4:30 am as we finished walking our assigned area. This young man had been struggling since the previous morning to remain clean from a meth addiction. With no family or friends in the area to turn to for support, he was trying to make it through a long night alone. Lawrence and Willie Lee were able to suggest a services intake location he could try at 10:00 am, but then we had to leave him, six hours and a couple of miles away from the possibility of help and a potential path toward housing.
PIT Counts accelerate across the country
With PIT Counts taking place across the U.S. this week, people experiencing homelessness are being counted and receiving the support services they need. In Texas, a Homeless Connect event coincided with the PIT Count and drew a line of people three hours before the event’s doors opened. Among the services offered to people attending the event were health screenings, pet care, bicycle repair, haircuts, food and clothing; dental services were among the highest in demand. In Bergen County, NJ, an array of services were offered to people experiencing homelessness during the PIT Count through a Homeless Connect event. As a result of combined efforts, these events help to address homelessness in two ways, 1) take a census of people experiencing homelessness in order to receive federal funds to provide the services needed throughout the year, and 2) provide services to meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness, like a haircut, dental work, food, and clothing.
When visiting communities across the country, I am always reminded of the strength, coping and survival skills of persons experiencing homelessness. I woke up in the morning with raw, burnt-feeling skin on my face after participating in Chicago’s Point in Time Count on the night of January 22, 2013. The City of Chicago Department of Family Support Services led the efforts in partnership with the Chicago Alliance, numerous service providers, police, hospitals and volunteers across Chicago. During sub-zero temperatures, over 200 volunteers explored the 234 square miles of Chicago to count persons experiencing homelessness on the streets, on CTA trains, and in parks and abandoned buildings.
The team I participated with was led by the City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services (DFFS) Deputy Commissioner, Joel Mitchell, and included DFFS Communications Director Matthew Smith, Editor of Streetwise Suzanne Hanney, and Jennifer Cossyleon, a PhD student at Loyola University. Several media outlets followed us to our first location under the Dan Ryan Freeway, where we spotted movement around a metal barrel, deep under the overpass with flames providing some heat. As our team attempted to find an opening through the fence, we came upon a shopping cart; next to it were layers and layers of blankets. As the team walked closer to the cart, a man peered at Joel from under the covers. Joel extended a warm and friendly “hello” and shared that we were on the streets tonight to talk to persons experiencing homelessness to help the city improve services and get much needed resources to aid those efforts. Names were exchanged. Joel asked if he would mind answering a few questions and the man kindly obliged, sharing information freely from under his layers of blankets. He shared that he had not talked to anyone else tonight, but had been approached by other staff while living on the street, and had not been able to get housing.
01/29/2013 - USICH Seeking Director of Communications and External Relations and Management and Program Analyst
USICH is looking to add to its staff as we begin the second term of the Obama Administration, and we are currently seeking two talented individuals in Communications and Policy teams.
USICH is seeking a qualified candidate with a strong background in public affairs and communications among stakeholders in the legislature, federal agency partners, and national partners to lead USICH Communications as its Director of Communications and External Relations. The Director will serve as a public affairs specialist responsible for planning and implementing communications and media information programs regarding the work of the USICH and its initiatives. Additionally, the Director has principal responsibility for developing, managing and implementing the agency’s legislative priorities and processes, as well as management of relationships, initiatives and work related to federal and national partners. This position works out of the Washington, DC office.
As Point-in-Time Counts begin this week and extend through next week across the country, the issue of homelessness is brought front and center. As stated by a homeless coalition leader in Texas, “The key to solving homelessness is understanding who is homeless.” The 2013 PIT Count, unlike previous counts, focuses on capturing the number of youth experiencing homelessness. In Los Angeles, youth experiencing homelessness are helping to count their peers to support this 2013 PIT Count effort.
The nine sites involved in the interagency Youth Count! initiative, are starting their work this week and next to implement strategies for counting youth and to also find out more detailed information about youth experiencing homelessness and helping to connect them to services. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote about the Youth Count! work in Hannepin County here.
01/23/2013 - Aligning Assets Towards the Goal: A Blog from VA’s Tom O’Toole on the Homeless Patient Aligned Care Teams (HPACT)
The adage, “It takes a village” has been applied to lot of different efforts over the years to the point of over-use. However, when it comes to ending homelessness among Veterans by 2015, there is probably no better descriptor for what is needed and what is being done. Last year, as part of this effort, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) launched an ambitious pilot project to develop Homeless Patient Aligned Care Teams (H-PACT) to provide comprehensive, wrap-around primary care coupled with homeless programming to help Veterans make the transition out of homelessness and to help keep them housed. This joint effort between the Office of Homeless Programs and Office of Primary Care Services funded 32 sites around the country located in a variety of settings, including Community Resource and Referral Centers (easy access community- based centers), VA outpatient clinics (community-based outpatient clinics) and within VA Medical Centers. These are sites where we see homeless Veterans struggling to subsist, where they often find themselves cycling through the system dealing with the consequences of their homelessness in emergency departments and hospital wards, and where we have the resources in place to make a difference.
We released a newsletter this week covering the 2013 PIT Count, staffing changes at USICH, and a reflection on the Boston PIT Count that Executive Director Barbara Poppe attended in December.
In addition to the newsletter, we shared various news items through Facebook and Twitter. Here are a few of them:
News from across the country
A 5-year study of individuals in Boston’s Health Care for the Homeless program shows that drug overdoses, rather than AIDS, is now the leading cause of death among program participants. As noted in the article, this represents a reversal of the trend from 15 years ago, and mirrors the rise in drug-related deaths among the larger population. This type of study is important to advance our understanding of the prevalence of drug abuse in order to better allocate resources and services to meet the increase in need. The study will be published next month, but you can read about it here right now.
More than 350 volunteers left Boston City Hall on the crisp, cold early winter night to fan out across the city streets and conduct the annual homeless census—a 33-year tradition. USICH Regional Coordinator Bob Pulster and I were part of the team lead by Boston Emergency Shelter Commission Director Jim Greene. Under the directive of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Jim had emphasized that the volunteers participating in the count had a primary goal to assist and help those who were unsheltered. We were charged to help them connect to immediate resources like shelter, health care, food, blankets, and clothing. Counting alone would not be sufficient -- we also were to engage and outreach. If someone needed help, we were to wait with that person until one of the outreach vans arrived and a good connection was made. Our job was to make sure the linkage actually happened.
I observed Jim and another volunteer interact with two women, one in her 50s, the other in her early 20s and pregnant. Among the volunteers on Mayor Menino’s team was Dr. Paula Johnson, a noted primary care physician, the head of the Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and board chair of the Boston Public Health Commission. Jim beckoned Dr. Johnson over, and she spoke softly, and more privately, with the young woman about her pregnancy, homelessness and related risks. The rest of the group stood back to give them some space and a level of privacy. When Dr. Johnson urged the young woman to consider accepting a ride to shelter, she wavered, asking for time to think it over. Greene assured her that an outreach van would be back to check in with her during the night.