Keynote Remarks for the 2012 National Conference on Ending Homelessness by CEO and President Nan Rom

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Conference Presentation | August 10, 2012

Files: Keynote Remarks for the 2012 National Conference on Ending Homelessness (PDF | 327 KB | 6 pages)

KEYNOTE ADDRESS

NATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ENDING FAMILY HOMELESSNESS

NAN ROMAN

President and CEO

July 16 2012

Good afternoon and welcome to the 2012 National Alliance on Ending Homelessness. I want to extend our most heartfelt and deep thanks to all of you for being here today. We have over 1400 people in attendance – a record! Most of you are here because you have a burning desire to learn from your colleagues what you can do to improve your own approaches to ending homelessness. You want to know about the most effective practices and the most promising innovations that will work for you. Many of you have traveled far and put a lot of resources into making it here to D.C. for our conference, and we want you to know how deeply we appreciate that. I promise you that the Alliance staff has put tremendous effort into making sure that you have plenty of content here to chew on.

My job today is to tell you what we at the Alliance see as the current lay of the land: where we stand, what has worked, what has not, and what the future holds. I think we are at a pivotal moment on the issue, because things are very difficult now.

It seems that 2008 and 2009 should have been the most difficult years with respect to homelessness, with the huge spikes in unemployment, plummeting family incomes, a massive number of foreclosures, and painful cuts in state and local budgets. Many nonprofits lost big chunks of their budgets, and many households found themselves either on the brink of, or falling into, homelessness. These were, indeed, bad years, but we had some things going for us. We had the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program (HPRP), and housing costs were going down. And when you have less to work with, you are spurred to innovate, to work harder, to try new things. It may have been a frightening time, but the sense of urgency it inspired was a shot of adrenaline that pushed us forward.

I fear that today is, in some ways, a more dangerous time. We may have arrived at a new status quo. I fear that the sense of urgency has diminished, and that the mood of the nation has taken an alarming turn. Politics have become ugly. Bipartisanship, once seen as something to be aspired to, is now reviled as an indication that one or the other side must have “given in.” Our sense of mutual responsibility is diminishing, perhaps because people are increasingly fearful about their own financial security. Rather than compassion towards people who live in poverty, there is animosity or contempt. There is little acknowledgement that our futures are bound together.

And we still have high unemployment, foreclosures, falling incomes, and budget cuts, although this time those cuts are threatened from the federal government as state and local budgets start to level out. Housing costs are going up, and we are losing HPRP, a program that has done so much to address the problem of homelessness and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

These are alarming developments, but we are not powerless to affect them. If we believe that a defining value of our nation is the conviction that the most vulnerable people among us should be supported and treated with compassion, we must stand up and say that. If we believe that our nation, which remains the richest nation in the world in spite of its current economic woes, has the capacity to provide children, veterans, people with mental illness – indeed, anyone in need – with food, clothing and a place to call home, we must stand up and say that.

And of course, now is the perfect time. We are in an election cycle. Whatever political party you belong to, now is the time for you to make yourself heard. Now is the time to make sure that people who share your convictions do the same. You are the ones who care the most about poor people and solving their problems. If you do not speak up about it, who will? So make sure to vote; make sure you participate; and, most importantly, make sure that everyone you work with, especially consumers, is registered to vote and participate.

If you want to know how to do that, we have a workshop here that can show you. The Alliance for Justice and the National Coalition for the Homeless both have tables outside where you can get information. Everyone should be registered to vote, and should vote. Your participation will make a difference.

Lately there has been a great deal of discussion in homelessness assistance field about new strategies and how we can do things smarter. That’s a discussion we need to have, because the reality is that we are likely going to learn how to do more with less. Already 40 percent of people who are homeless are unsheltered, according to the most recent HUD Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, and the Alliance expects the number of people experiencing homelessness to rise. We issued a report late last year estimating that, based on increases in deep poverty, homelessness might be expected to increase a minimum of 5 percent over the next few years. Because of the fiscal perfect storm that threatens 2013 – the end of the Bush-era tax cuts, the sequestration of federal spending, and the approach of the debt ceiling – we may have fewer federal resources to draw upon in the future.

So the key thing to keep in mind here is that, if we want to keep families and children and youth and vulnerable people off the streets, we are going to have to be smart about it. If we can do something that is equally effective and costs less, we need to do that. And that means change.

Our experience with HPRP has taught us that rapid re-housing linked with services works better and is more cost-effective than interventions like transitional housing. Don’t expect, however, to get more money for rapid re-housing. Instead, we will need to re-allocate funding from other interventions such as transitional housing to rapid re-housing.

We also need to think about effective targeting. Over the past few years, using the permanent housing set aside, HUD-VASH and other permanent supportive housing funding, we have created a lot of permanent supportive housing. Between 2007 and 2011 the nation’s permanent supportive housing inventory increased by 40 percent, or nearly 60,000 units. Chronic homelessness went down, but its decline was not commensurate with that increase in housing inventory.

Chronic homelessness is a complex problem, so there could be several causes for that discrepancy. The one thing we can be certain about, however, is that people experiencing chronic homelessness are not receiving enough of the permanent supportive housing. If we are going to have the impact we want – if we are going to end chronic homelessness – we need to target these units at the most vulnerable people. We need to identify and house the people with the greatest need and the longest spells of homelessness. We have seen, in community after community, that this sort of deep targeting is what brings the numbers down. So we must target the less intensive interventions at the people who are the easiest to serve, and save the most intensive interventions for the people who are the hardest to serve. And we must do this on a community-wide level.

There are two other issues I want to talk to you about today: youth experiencing homelessness, and the crisis system.

While good work has been done on youth homelessness, we are still not where we should be. We still lack crucial information about the size of the population of youth experiencing homelessness; we still lack a definitive typology; we still do not know which interventions work best and for whom. As a result we have not been able to generate the will to go to scale; we have not been able to increase resources appreciably; and we have not made much progress.

At the Alliance, we took a preliminary stab at remedying this by sizing the population and identifying its segments. We used federal survey data and academic typologies. The data are weak, but segments of the population have emerged in our research, and we have arrived at some ideas about how to move forward. Here is what we found.

  • A great many youth between 12 and 24 become homeless every year. The number is somewhere around 1.9 million. But the vast majority – 70 percent or 1.3 million – experience homelessness for a relatively short period of time.
  • The rest stay homeless longer, but they eventually return home or find housing rather quickly; and those under 18 remain connected to family or school.
  • About 80,000 youth have more serious problems, and about half of those have disabilities.
  • About 60,000 of these youth are the heads of young families of their own.

Admittedly, this typology is based on less than perfect data, and it does not tell us everything. We still need more research and more data on the population of LGBTQ kids, and on the causes and effects of the sexual exploitation of homeless youth. And the child welfare system still requires our attention: it remains unclear why anyone under 18 is homeless, given that minors are the responsibility of the state child welfare system.

What does this typology tell us? Well, just as in the population of adults experiencing homelessness, the population of youths experiencing homelessness can be divided into two groups: a large group with less intensive needs and a much smaller group with more intensive needs. For the first group, we clearly need a more robust crisis system. These youth may not be homeless for very long, but bad things can happen to them even in a few hours. And for the youth in that group who eventually return home, we need to focus more on family intervention to ensure that their return happens as quickly and safely as possible.

For the second group, where the need is the greatest, we should focus on ending their homelessness by targeting Runaway and Homeless Youth Act resources at them and ramping up housing and services. The number of high-need youth is small, making this a very solvable problem. Nevertheless, youth in this group are often screened out of programs.

When it comes to young homeless families, we need to add developmental programming and family intervention to the general homeless family system, which is where most members of young homeless families receive services.

This typology also has many policy implications. For instance, it shows that we must obtain data faster, and include youth experiencing homelessness in the 2013 point in time count. It also underscores the fact that homeless providers, advocates and researchers still lack a single, definitive management information system for the collection and reporting of outcomes on the size and characteristics of the homeless population, which means that we should merge the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management and Information System (RHYMIS) with the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). We also should incentivize existing homeless youth providers to serve the highest need kids. We can scale up the family intervention services provided by child welfare, juvenile justice and the Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) Act. And we must engage to improve our child welfare and family support programs, because much of the problem of youth homelessness can still be traced back to large holes in this vital safety net.

The problem of youth homelessness will be a big issue for us in the year ahead, and we already have great partners like the National Network for Youth who are committed to making a big push to end youth homelessness.

The other issue that we at the Alliance have been examining is the homeless crisis system: how it should be sized and what it should look like. For many years now the design of the crisis system has largely been neglected, and the idea of emergency shelter as a solution has been demonized, and characterized as inadequate, as a mere “Band-Aid.”

It’s true that the shelters ALONE are not the solution, but it is equally true that the majority of people who become homeless are single, able-bodied adults for whom the interventions of permanent supportive housing and transitional housing are too intensive. As we do with other human service programs, we tend to think of the crisis system in terms of the people who stay there the longest. But in reality, the majority of people who enter emergency shelters quickly move in and then move on. For them shelter is an effective short term solution – as it was designed to be.

For most people, the shelter serves its purpose as a temporary place to stay while they work out whatever kind of housing crisis they are experiencing. Most people do not stay in the system long, and they typically do not come back, or only come back once.

The crisis system also serves a vital sorting function. People enter the system when they need to, but because it is so bare bones and so unpleasant, they have little incentive to stay longer than is absolutely necessary. In this way the system sorts the people with the greatest need, the people who require the most intensive interventions, from the majority of people who are experiencing a crisis that they can handle more or less on their own. To design a good shelter or crisis system, we must answer the following questions.

  • What should it do?
  • What should be its overall size?
  • What types and number of specialized beds should be available? Most jurisdictions have a good number of beds for single adult men, but have few or none for couples, youth, people with pets, or for people who have active substance abuse issues.
  • Who should manage the shelter system, and who should be responsible for determining how many and what kind of beds are needed, and who gets each bed?
  • What is the relationship between shelter, detox and rehab, and what should it be?
  • What should be the length of stay?
  • How should the shelter system link to the back door?
  • Do the centralized one-stop-shops and campuses really work? Are they more effective or less effective than a decentralized approach?
  • If you want to fix your shelter system, where do you start? What is the first thing to take on, what is next, etc.?

Today we recognize that, if we are to end the problem of homelessness, we must transition from a program-based approach to a systems-based approach. Figuring out what the crisis system should look like is a crucial part of that, because it is sure to remain the front door and the point of assessment for further interventions. Re-tooling this system is absolutely critical, and something we are anxious to explore with you over the next year. But if you thought I would have answers to the questions above – not yet! We do, however, have a few ideas.

We firmly believe that the time a person spends in shelter should be very short. One key goal set by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act is that no one experience homelessness for a period longer than 30 days. Ideally, people should move through the shelter system fast. The faster people leave, the greater the turnover rate, the fewer the number of beds needed, and the greater the likelihood that the quality of shelters can be addressed, which is important, because right now the quality of shelters must be improved. In many places the standards remain very low.

To accomplish this, shelters should be a place of assessment, and shelter personnel should have a variety of tools to draw upon in order to provide the help people need to move on. More rapid re-housing tools would certainly facilitate this process, and people in the shelter system could be connected to community-based service slots. In short, shelter personnel could probably empower people in the shelter system to accomplish on their own many of the things that transitional housing and other back end interventions currently do for them.

These are some of the many things that we, at the Alliance, have been thinking about recently: how to target our resources better, how to retool programs to increase their effectiveness, how to move forward on ending youth homelessness, and how to improve our crisis systems.

Of course, I want to re-emphasize how important it is that we continue to advocate for meeting the needs of poor and homeless people, and how important it is that we make our voices heard. There is a national political debate going on about the role of government, and part of that debate concerns our mutual responsibility for each other and for the least among us. It is easy to feel like a mere observer in this debate. And if all you do is observe, that’s all you’ll be.

As I said earlier, if the people who care the most about this issue don’t speak out, who will? To make your voices heard you do not have to lobby. You do not have to be an expert on all the details of legislation. You just need to be able to express your concerns and those of your community. At present, our voices and our concerns are not being heard. If you speak up, your voice may not have an immediate impact. That’s why we need to keep speaking up, because if we don’t, I can guarantee you that we will not get anything for the people we care about.

Thank you so much for being with us at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. The conference is going to be terrific, and it is because of all of you. We at the National Alliance to End Homelessness are tremendously grateful, and as always we are deeply honored to be your partners in the effort to end homelessness.