Among the population of people experiencing homelessness in this country, there is a subset of individuals living with disabilities who have been left out in the cold for far too long—people experiencing chronic homelessness. And yet we know that ending chronic homelessness saves money in the long run and strengthens communities. It also restores lives. We’ve seen it first-hand. Take Mickael, a man in West Virginia who had lived with cancer on the street for many years until he was finally connected with supportive housing. He formed a community, prepared meals daily for his friends and neighbors, grew herbs in his garden to flavor those meals. He became a vocal advocate for others experiencing chronic homelessness. After several years stably housed and many rounds of treatment, he was able to pass away with dignity in his own home.
The work that we are doing to end chronic homelessness once and for all is for him and for many others with disabilities who are experiencing long-term homelessness. Last year, we were honored to lead a small team responsible for developing the vision for what it means to end chronic homelessness. The vision was bold. Perhaps, we wondered at the time, even too ambitious. But it was based on overwhelming evidence that our solution—permanent supportive housing—works, and on our belief in the power of leadership, partnership, and a commitment to people. This vision included criteria and a benchmark to help communities build robust, coordinated systems to ensure that people experiencing chronic homelessness are on a path to permanent housing with tailored supportive services as quickly as possible.
Last Tuesday, the first community in the country – Bergen County, New Jersey – declared victory in their fight to end chronic homelessness, confirming that this bold vision was possible. Homelessness assistance providers, health and public health officials, and housing providers across Bergen County worked collaboratively to address the full range of challenges faced by people experiencing chronic homelessness. Their highly organized approach allowed the partners to rapidly house people with significant obstacles and service needs, and to provide the wrap-around supports necessary for maintaining housing.
Bergen County’s success was hinged on a few critical factors:
- They implemented a system-wide Housing First response, beginning in 2007,
- identified everyone by name and persistently engaged them until they were ready for housing,
- offered a full spectrum of supportive services and permanent housing options (aka supportive housing) to each individual experiencing and at-risk of experiencing chronic homelessness, and
- fostered partnerships with health care providers to ensure coordinated access to crisis services and comprehensive health and behavioral health care to support housing stability.
So, why do we think that Bergen County’s achievement is so important?
Because when every individual living with a chronic illness in any given community has a safe and stable place to rest their head at night and the support needed to stay there, we are all stronger.
We are Americans. Where we see possibility, we act. Bergen County has shown us that what was once thought to be impossible is not.
We know that there are communities in the country that feel overwhelmed by the task ahead and who feel like achieving the federal criteria and benchmark seems impossible. Know that HUD and USICH—along with our many national partners and technical assistance providers—are here to support you along the way.
On behalf of our teams at USICH and HUD, we want to congratulate Bergen County, New Jersey for proving that it can be done, and we thank you for your commitment to your neighbors. We look forward to celebrating this milestone with many other communities as we all continue the work of ending homelessness in America.
Bergen County is the proof point that it can be done. And because it can, it should.
Written by Lindsay Knotts, USICH Policy Director, and Marcy Thompson, Senior Advisor, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs, HUD