Our Reflections on Mark Johnston's Remarks at the COHHIO Conference

written by naehblog
April 23, 2012

Last week, I attended a conference in Columbus put on by the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio (COHHIO). The program included a wide slate of workshops on topics like diversion and coordinated intake, along with an entire set of workshops devoted to advocacy (including a session led by yours truly on how to engage one’s congressional delegation).

Perhaps what struck me most was the keynote address given Tuesday morning by Mark Johnston, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Needs Assistance Programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Although it might not be immediately clear from his extremely long title, Mr. Johnston plays a critical role at HUD: he oversees the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants programs, among others. He is one of the most important people at HUD advancing the effort to prevent and end homelessness.

He spent much of his keynote address explaining why, despite a grim budget outlook for HUD programs over the next few years, he is still confident that we can meet the goals laid out in the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness, including ending chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015. Mr. Johnston made it clear to conference attendees that it won’t be easy, and we will have to make tough decisions and use every dollar wisely, but he believes we can truly end homelessness.

In his remarks, Mr. Johnston explained why the tight fiscal constraints mean we as participants in the movement to end homelessness need to carefully weigh each and every program and ensure that we are using precious resources as efficiently as possible. He emphasized the need to reallocate our resources, when need be, toward programs that have the best outcomes for the lowest costs. He specifically mentioned the fact that research on homelessness prevention is not yet quite strong enough to accurately predict who will become homeless, whereas we know that rapid re-housing is an extremely effective, and inexpensive, intervention. He shared that most communities are seeing that 85-95% of people served by rapid re-housing remain housed a year or two later. Given limited resources, he encouraged communities to prioritize investment of their limited Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) resources in rapid re-housing over prevention.

Throughout the remainder of the conference, I heard numerous presenters and attendees speaking to the fact that they had come to the same conclusion in their own communities. Based on lessons from the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), these communities, like many others, intend to spend the vast majority of their new ESG funds on rapid re-housing.

Hearing from Mr. Johnston and these leaders and practitioners from across Ohio, I found the conference extremely inspiring. Communities are not only fighting hard against funding reductions, they also recognize that people experiencing homelessness are depending on us to make the most we can out of the resources that are available.  These communities are taking the opportunity to reexamine their homeless assistance systems, ensuring they are squeezing the most out of every last dollar so we continue making progress toward our goal of ending homelessness once and for all.