Expert Q & A | October 27, 2010
Founder of Common Ground and the 100,000 Homes Campaign.
What is the newest issue emerging in homelessness policy?
One issue with large potential impact is that more communities are using data to redesign their response to homelessness. Communities with the most information on who is homeless are in the best position to help people out of homelessness. Better data means being able to use mainstream programs more effectively— for instance, if we know who exactly is a veteran, or who qualifies for senior housing, our options for housing those people expand significantly. Along with many partners, we recently launched the 100,000 Homes Campaign to help communities across the country identify, house and support their most vulnerable homeless residents. Participating means having help in gathering person-specific data on who is homeless and in the most fragile health; creating a successful housing placement system; and being part of and learning from a network of others working collectively to house 100,000 vulnerable people by July 2013.
What issue in homelessness policy should everyone be reminded of?
I think many of us were inspired after Hurricane Katrina when over 80,000 people took to craigslist to offer housing to those made homeless by the storm. It jolted me into realizing that people naturally take care of each other in moments of crisis. The homeless never forget that homelessness is an urgent problem, but I think the rest of us often do.
The 100,000 Homes Campaign recaptures this sense of urgency by bringing individuals face to face with the homeless in their communities. It gives people a chance to respond directly and immediately to the task of moving people out of homelessness and into stable homes. The Campaign helps communities to make the best use of all their resources, including drawing on community members to play an expanded role in providing housing and support for vulnerable people. Government resources are critical, but there is a great deal of untapped capacity among community residents and institutions that can be put to use getting more people housed.
How did you start working about the field of homelessness (or housing)?
My first job out of college was as a full time volunteer at a shelter for homeless and runaway kids. There was a great staff, and the organization had the best of intentions, but over and over, the same kids came in for a few weeks, were discharged to the street, and returned a few weeks later to start the cycle again. It was clear that we weren’t having much of an impact. In talking to the young people I worked with, while they needed every type of service, it was obvious that nothing else would stick if they didn’t have stable homes. That’s what convinced me to focus on affordable housing and to go to work for a not for profit developer.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
Growing up, my parents took us to church in downtown Hartford, CT. It was an unusual congregation: just us, a few other families and several elderly residents of Hartford’s downtown SRO hotels. My parents befriended them, and they became part of our extended family. They came to our house in the suburbs every holiday, and we’d visit them if they were sick or to deliver food. We saw how important SROs and rooming houses were as housing for poor people without families.
My parent’s example of taking personal responsibility for people who had very little and seeing that they never lost their housing reminds me of our tendency to overcomplicate homelessness. We assume that it’s the job of not for profits or government agencies to handle the issue, and we forget that it’s actually the most natural thing in the world to help the people around us if we know what they need. We tend not to take into account the capacity and willingness of citizens to help end homelessness in their communities. This is why the Campaign has potential for shifting our mindsets; it draws on the energy and concern of ordinary people to become vital resources for ending homelessness in their communities.
Why do you think ending homelessness is possible?
When “homelessness” is not abstract, when it has a name and a face, it is less overwhelming and more solvable. We observe that as the Campaign helps more and more communities learn who the homeless are and discover the other dimensions of their lives— that they are elderly, or veterans, or grew up in foster care, or have cancer— they view their resources differently and realize they can draw on mainstream programs for solutions. There’s something about focusing on individual people that restores a sense of urgency to homelessness and gets us focused on solutions.
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