April 21, 2014

We Can End Homelessness

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As a new intern in the Federal government in the winter of 1983, I was a junior researcher for a Presidential hunger commission.   One frigid morning I saw a man living on a heating grate near the White House.  His name was Saif.  I was stunned to see someone living outside and I sat down near him to understand why he was there.   This was the first person had I ever met who was homeless.   At the time there weren’t any Federal homelessness programs, much less evidence-based programs and strategic policies to confront the problem.

Today, ending the cycle of homelessness is an audacious goal but the evidence is now clear that it can be done.  In fact, it’s already happeningThe Federal government’s strategic plan to prevent and end homelessnessis calledOpening Doors.” It’s a strategy built on proven approaches taken at the state and local level that are dramatically reducing both chronic and veteran homelessness in this country.  Since 2010, more than 3,000 cities and counties reported a 24 percent reduction in veteran homelessness and a 16 percent decline among those who have been living on our streets and in our shelters for long periods of time.

How are they doing it?  These communities understand there is no single method to reduce homelessness.  Instead, they’re taking a strategic approach by targeting various interventions based upon the needs of the individual or family.  Whether it’s helping to rapidly re-house families with young children or finding a permanent home for an individual with serious health conditions, HUD is working with our Federal, State and local partners to reduce and even eliminate homeless.  Over the last few years, the Federal government and local planners changed the trajectory of homelessness in America by understanding a simple truth — the cost of housing someone who is homeless is often less than doing nothing at all, as persons on the streets often cycle between expensive jails, hospitals and emergency shelters.

HUD recently awarded $1.6 billion in grants to renew support for nearly 7,100 local homeless housing and service programs throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  These grants allow local housing and service providers to continue offering permanent and transitional housing to persons experiencing homelessness as well as job training, health care, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, and child care.

But let’s face it—during this tough budget environment, HUD is challenging local communities to rethink their traditional response to homelessness and give greater weight to evidence-based strategies that we know are working.  Strategies like “Housing First” models that offer permanent supportive housing to persons living with long-term disabling conditions to rapid re-housing programs that help struggling families in our shelters move quickly into a place of their own.

Sure, Opening Doors sets a pretty high bar when it comes to preventing and even eliminating homelessness in this country.  For their part, local communities are making the smart choice, investing HUD funds in evidence-based, cost-effective programs.  But now is not the time to retreat from what’s been working.  President Obama’s 2015 budget seeks $2.4 billion for Homeless Assistance Grants, over $300 million above the 2014 enacted level. This level of funding maintains the approximately 224,000 HUD-funded beds that assist the homeless nationwide and would provide permanent housing with service supports for an additional 37,000 persons living on the streets.  If funded, we would effectively end street homelessness in this country.

I’m retiring from federal service after more than 30 years fighting this fight and working with some of the most heroic people you can imagine across this great country who share this mission.  As I prepare to leave, I’m heartened at how far we’ve come since I first met Saif living on a heating grate near the White House with nowhere to go.  We have the tools and the will as a nation to reduce and end homelessness in this country.

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