Sleeping Rough

written by naehblog
March 4, 2013

Today's guest blog post about the Alliance's 2013 Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness was contributed by Deborah Kafoury, District 1 Commissioner of Multnomah County, Oregon. Standing beside Kafoury in the accompanying photo in front of 1811 Eastlake, a "controversial and yet successful wet housing complex" is Bill Hobson, Executive Director of DESC.


One bright spot during the NAEH Ending Family and Youth Homelessness Conference last week was the session with Micah Projects from Brisbane, Australia. Yes, Australians are struggling with the same issues that we’re struggling with here – but they’ve got really great accents! And, they refer to homelessness as “sleeping rough." I love that.

My “a-ha” moment occurred during the first 20 minutes after I arrived at the conference. We were learning about DESC’s controversial and yet successful wet housing complex 1811 Eastlake. The point the speaker made was “we don’t wait for people to be ‘ready’ for housing – everyone is ready for housing.” 

Isn’t that the truth?  I have yet to meet anyone experiencing homelessness who said they weren’t ready for housing. I certainly didn’t hear it from the multitude of individuals I surveyed during my shift at the Central Library for our county’s one night street count a couple of weeks ago.

It’s true that they may not have been ready to meet the many requirements we put on people to get into a housing program, but every single person is “ready” to sleep in a bed instead of sleeping rough.

The steady drumbeat heard throughout the conference was of sequestration, looming cuts to the already limited resources available to end homelessness and of a need so great we do not even know how to quantify it. The inspirational message was “do more with less.” 

I pose an alternative concept. How about we “do more” but with compassion? How about we “meet people where they are”  – assume they are ready to get off the streets or out of their cars or off that couch where they are staying for a few precarious nights – and do what it takes to get them into housing? 

This past summer, in Multnomah County (the home of Portland, OR), we experienced something we hadn’t before experienced. Our family shelters were full and 70 families were on the wait list. 

We hired two mobile housing placement specialists to help these families find housing before they landed in shelter. (I learned from the conference this is technically called shelter diversion). Armed with flexible rent assistance, a cell phone and some training in assertive engagement, they hit the streets – to “meet people where they are” and, since December, they’ve housed 46 families. 

Our housing placement specialists are named Mary and Carl. There are Mary’s and Carl’s all over the US and apparently Australia, working similar magic – doing more with less, and more importantly, doing more with compassion and vision and meeting people where they are. 

Ending homelessness is complicated. Unless you can peel away the complications (that we often add to the program) and focus on the simple solution – a bed. Then it’s not so rough.