Ending Homelessness

 

If good intentions, well meaning programs, and humanitarian gestures could end homelessness, it would be history by now. Since they don’t, it is time to do something different, something that solves the problem, not services the disgrace [1]

Philip Mangano, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

 

Reactive response to chronic homelessness

In most developed countries, including Australia, homelessness service provision has grown in response to the problem and tended to address the immediate or crisis needs of people. There has been less strategic development of systems that have anticipated ending chronic homelessness. In fact, the very notion that we could achieve such a goal remains almost as crazy as the Prime Ministerial notion that “By 1990, no child will be living in poverty” (Bob Hawke, 1987).

Planning to end chronic homelessness

However, trying to end chronic homelessness is no longer a crazy notion in the USA or Canada. Over the past few years, numerous cities (more than 300) have developed action plans and services and made affordable housing available which aims to do precisely that. Those city leaders have made the decision that they need not tolerate any level of chronic homelessness within their communities. They have decided to stop ‘servicing it and begin solving it[2] .

Those city leaders no longer want to see their fellow citizens fed in parks, much like sea gulls. They no longer want to provide long term housing in crisis shelters, they don’t want to see chronic alcoholics freeze to death on their streets or find people with psychiatric disability sheltered in hospital emergency departments or prisons. They have agreed that they want to try to put an end to chronic homelessness.

Measurable reduction in chronic homelessness

And these action plans to end chronic homelessness are working! Cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, Denver and Seattle in the USA, Toronto in Canada and London in the UK are seeing the results of their work. Better still, formerly chronically homeless people are living in houses and apartments, many of them with the assistance of ongoing support services.

Previously chronically homeless people with multiple problems are now sustaining tenancies. Across the USA, chronic homelessness has been reduced by 30%, with this achievement clearly measured.[3]

Britain, which has a longer history of trying to reduce chronic homelessness, reported a two thirds reduction in rough sleepers (street homeless) between 1998 and 2001. In 2007, the British government reports that the number of rough sleepers in England is now about 500 people, a 73% reduction from the baseline figure identified in 1998. [4]

It is clear that much can be achieved, when the goal is identified and a strategy is put in place to do it!

Paradigm shift needed to end homelessness

A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, titled Strategies for reducing chronic street homelessness refers to the ‘paradigm shift’ that is required by communities in improving responses to street homelessness:

 
The essential recognition underlying the paradigm shifts we observed was that existing approaches and homeless assistance networks were not reducing or ending homelessness, particularly chronic or street homelessness [3].
 

The report goes on to clarify:

 
The old paradigm was that street homeless individuals should be cared for more by charitable, often religious, organizations rather than by mainstream public agencies. The old paradigm relied heavily on emergency shelters, transitional housing, and sobriety-based programs. The old paradigm did not plan, or expect, to end chronic street homelessness [4].
 

This same report, which was a study of strategies adopted in a number of cities in the USA, concludes that there are 11 key elements to successfully reducing chronic homelessness. The first five of these are considered essential elements of success. These are:

  • Paradigm shift
  • Clear goal set
  • Community wide approach
  • Organisational structure and leadership specifically for reducing chronic street homelessness
  • Mainstream agency involvement
  • Trigger event
  • Private sector involvement
  • Local elected official commitment
  • Progress tracking mechanism
  • New approaches to services
  • Strategy to combat NIMBY (Not in my back yard)

Footnotes:

1. Philip Mangano, Executive Director, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Statement made to the author in an interview on 9 November 2007.

2. Philip Mangano, Executive Director, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. From a conversation with the author on 9 November 2007.

3. HUD, Issues 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, Washington DC

4. Housing Strategy Statistical Appendix data, 2008 UK.