Take Five!  Q & A with Martha Burt

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Expert Q & A | February 4, 2008

Martha Burt
Principal Researcher, Urban Institute

What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
Prevention is both the newest and the oldest issue, because it's where we started concentrating our efforts as a nation and where we must continue to focus in the future. In 1983 the first Emergency Food and Shelter Program (a FEMA program that supplements the resources of local social service organizations) provided rent and utility assistance to stave off homelessness. Twenty-four years later, this program continues, but we still face the dilemma of knowing whether it actually prevents homelessness or is giving services to far more people than would ever become homeless. Bringing the large mainstream public agencies such as mental health and human services into the "homeless arena" is another front-line policy issue, and it connects to prevention in a big way—if these agencies would come to believe it is their responsibility help their most vulnerable clients avoid housing crises, there would be far less homelessness.

What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
Homelessness is, first and foremost, a housing issue. You can't pat yourself on the back for putting more money into homeless-specific programs and services if, at the same time, you vote against, or vote for people who vote against, measures such as housing trust funds, housing subsidies, inclusionary zoning, and statewide affordable housing strategies that are designed to create more affordable housing and assure that every community provides its fair share of affordable housing. If we had enough affordable housing, we wouldn't be worrying nearly as much about preventing homelessness—we would have done it.

How did you start working in the field of homelessness (or housing)?
Throughout my professional career, my work has focused on improving public policies and service program practices for helping vulnerable populations, including teen moms, at-risk youth, people with serious mental illness, women victims of rape and battering, and abused and neglected children. When homelessness first became a public issue it was very clear that "my" people, very poor people whose circumstances or conditions made them vulnerable to many hazards, were also the ones most likely to become homeless. Everything I had done up to that point, in the early 1980s, fed right into my commitment to help policy makers understand and ultimately end homelessness.

Where do you draw your inspiration?
I draw inspiration from the fact that I can really see things changing in communities that take ending homelessness seriously. I find that really exciting, and it makes me want to bring more and more communities into the process and help them adapt and develop approaches that will be effective in their communities. I also find it inspiring when I see people using the information and techniques that I produce as a policy researcher to write better legislation, stimulate greater efforts to end homelessness, and pick effective approaches to do so.

Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
Ending most homelessness is a matter of public will, not a matter of not knowing how. No developed country is entirely free of homelessness, but those that do what it takes to provide housing, with the supportive services needed to help very vulnerable people retain that housing, have succeeded in reducing homelessness to the bare minimum—with few people becoming homeless, and those that fall out of housing remaining homeless for the shortest possible time.

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