January 30, 2012

The Face of Homelessness

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I observed the men, women and children standing in the cold, waiting for a hot meal on a Tuesday in January, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Not just any Tuesday, but the day each year when thousands of volunteers across the country fan out to collect information on the number of homeless individuals living in the U.S.  The Point in Time (PIT) count occurs each year during the last week of January.  I signed on to volunteer this year and it opened my eyes to what homelessness looks like in America today and strengthens my resolve to continue the work of ending homelessness in our country.

This PIT count was organized by Pikes Peak United Way and Homeward Pikes Peak which both recruited volunteers to engage the men and women who were looking forward to a meal in a warm dining hall. A particular focus of the PIT count in Colorado Springs this year was to find US military veterans living on the streets and in need of housing and other supportive services. Several active duty Army personnel from nearby Fort Carson volunteered their morning to intercept and survey these individuals.

Information from the PIT is critical to policy makers. It provides information necessary to show how the Housing First Approach is transforming the supportive service system where those in need are housed while decreasing the costs of homelessness on communities.  As a former local elected official, I am very familiar with the importance of the Point-in-Time.  I have witnessed how transitional and permanent affordable housing can reduce chronic homelessness allowing our most vulnerable citizens regain a place in society. Today’s count provided me with a rare insight into why long term and more recent homelessness exist.

The PIT provides us with a snapshot of the who, when and why homelessness persists today in America.  I was struck by the range of people seeking help:  young men, White and Latino, Vietnam Era veterans, families with small children and several with physical disabilities. One young man, named Michael said he just became homeless in the last two weeks because he lost his job. Indeed a sobering reminder of our fragile economic recovery and how many low income individuals and families are at risk of falling into homeless.

The PIT count may seem like a small step in the journey to end homelessness.  Perhaps it is. But the federal government, under president Obama’s leadership is more committed today than ever before to end homelessness in America. I convene a regional interagency council of a dozen federal agencies in the Rocky Mountain West.  We meet quarterly to coordinate programs and marshal our resources to align with the President’s Strategic Plan to End Chronic Homelessness by 2015, End Veteran Homelessness within 5 Years and End Homelessness in America in the next 10 years.  A tall order, but it can happen.  We have a blueprint, we have a vision and we will achieve success.

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