Street Roots recently asked U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness head Philip Mangano or Paul Carslon who oversees Region X (Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho) with the council to write a point, counterpoint alongside Paul Boden with the Western Regional Advocacy Project on the 10-year plan to end homelessness. Mangano and Carlson declined, but got Regional Director with the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, John Meyers to offer a federal perspective on ending homelessness. Both pieces ran in the June 15, edition of Street Roots and will be published on the Street News Service for other street papers around the globe to run this month. In my opinion, the first piece by Meyers offers us a cheerleading perspective by the federal government. No doubt, great work is being done, but it's still a little far fetched. Boden’s piece hits the hammer on the head, but you can decide for yourself. Enjoy!
Israel Bayer, Street Roots
We can end homelessness in the USA
By John Meyers
Can homelessness be ended in the next ten years? Frankly when asked this question a few years ago I was incredulous. We had accepted homelessness as a social reality, not be ended but to be lived with. As the new HUD director for the Pacific NW and Alaska, I imagined that my job was to oversee the programs that brought some relief to the homeless, perhaps a good number would even leave the streets through our housing programs, but end homelessness? Get serious. The best we could do was to manage the problem so it didn’t get totally out of control. I’d wager to say that my opinion was shared by most public officials, federal, state and local, not to mention by mayors, county commissioners, sheriffs, Democrat and Republican.
All that has changed. It changed because we were persuaded by facts provided by reliable research about the costs of homelessness, and reliable data about solutions. National advocates used these facts and pledged to achieve something social programs rarely do: to produce results.
One of these national advocates was a dynamo named Philip Mangano from Massachusetts, where he had been a leading advocate for the homeless for many years. I met Mr. Mangano and while impressed with his charisma, I was far more impressed with the facts he wielded: people who are living long term on the streets are not without cost to local government, quite the opposite they can cost from $40,000 to as high as $100,000 in jail, law enforcement, ER and emergency services. That was a shocking fact, but there it was laid out in a study by a Dr. Dennis Culhane from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Culhane’s cost study has been verified by nearly every major American city. In Seattle and Portland the cost of these chronically homeless was over $50,000 per person per year. And what did we have after spending all that tax payer money? Just another person homeless on the streets.
But OK, I asked Philip Mangano, what about solutions? I got an equal shock to see the research on proven programs that could produce lasting results for people we thought were beyond hope. For $15,000 a year or less these same American citizens could be brought into decent housing that was coupled with social services and they would stay off the streets. The data convinced me. Homeless people could and must be given a humane alternative to living in squalor on the streets, and cycling through ER, jail or prison. The solution made humane sense, it made fiscal sense.
But would it work? Could we persuade enough mayors, county executives, city council and county commissions to develop their own local plan to end homelessness in ten years? Their leadership was crucial. We also knew that homelessness had gotten too big a social problem for a solution to be found among the efforts of the small cadre of social service providers. We knew we needed the leadership of governors and state agency executives if the large state systems like prisons, mental hospitals and foster care systems were to stop discharging people into homelessness. We had the solutions, but could we persuade enough of these leaders to take a stand and make their local systems accountable for results?
Working with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD took the lead in bringing together federal agencies to work together in support of the development of these local plans. In the Pacific NW we hired a Regional Homelessness Coordinator whose job it was to visit mayors and county commissions in our four states and make the case. He did. My own experience with Philip Mangano was repeated with an ever growing number of mayors and county commissioners in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. County sheriffs quickly produced data from local jails that confirmed the escalating costs of homelessness. The result: a network of local plans throughout Washington State, local plans underway in nine Oregon counties with several more starting up this year. Plans underway in Anchorage and Boise with all four states having governor appointed executive level councils dedicated to support the local plans to end homelessness.
But when we would get results? It takes a lot of planning to change an entire social service system. How long would it take to fully implement housing first programs, coordinated entry, PACT case management teams? Could we get our counts of the homeless to be reliable? How long till our homeless management information systems would be operational? Some tough logistical challenges faced these plans and still do.
Portland’s plan (co-led by the city and Multnomah County) was impressive from the start. It had political will, great agencies and determination. An early federal investment of $10 million helped engineer change. The results amazed the mayor, City Commission and County Commission as much as it did me. A 70 percent reduction in chronic homelessness. A 40 percent reduction in the overall street count. Could this really be true after only two years? I sent out our Regional Homelessness Coordinator to check it out. He took me a little too literally and walked the streets of Portland at 2 a.m. and went under the bridges and through the alleys. He talked with not just city officials but providers such as JOIN and Central City Concern. We found out only later that downtown business owners had already gone to Mayor Potter and asked where so many of the homeless had gone to? Answer: to housing, nearly 1,500 of them in one of the most extraordinary efforts in the country.
Can we get results? Emphatically yes. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. Portland can’t stand alone in Oregon. Oregon City, Beaverton, Salem, Eugene, Bend, Albany, McMinnville, Corvallis Medford, Grant’ Pass and Newport have to develop effective plans as well.
Most of these same plans have strategies to prevent and end the homelessness of families, veterans and youth. HUD continues to invest over half of its homeless funds towards families. Now new research on effective solutions holds the same promise it does for chronically homeless persons; we can create a system that is accountable at every level, that will produce results.
We are determined. We have solutions. We are getting results. We can end homelessness.
John Meyers is the regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
What is it going to take to end homelessness in the USA?
By Paul Boden
The federal government’s current fixation on local Ten Year Plans to End Chronic Homelessness – with HUD’s McKinney homeless assistance dollars – has many homeless people, service providers and housing developers shaking their heads in dismay, there’s one thing these pla ns have done that many of us have waited years to hear: the federal government is giving lip service to "ending homelessness."
Hey, it’s a start and a long way from where we started 20 years ago!
The trick now is to go from talking, meeting, planning and writing plans to end "chronic" homelessness to actually funding the housing, healthcare, education and employment programs ALL poor people need to avoid or escape homelessness. This is where the head shaking comes in. The Bush administration has invested millions and millions of tax dollars over the past six years going from town to town and state to state rallying business and government "leaders" and getting them to spend thousands of their own local dollars to write plans to end "chronic" homelessness in 10 years; meanwhile, a 25-year trend of defunding the very federal programs that local communities so desperately need to end homelessness continues.
McKinney homeless assistance funding is a miniscule allocation of approximately $1.4 billion this year; compare that to the $52 billion a year (in 2004 dollars) reduction in funding for affordable housing programs since 1979 and the word miniscule makes sense.
Before the reemergence in 1983 of massive contemporary homelessness in the US, poor people in local communities faced many of the same obstacles homeless people face today, but they did have one thing they don’t have today: housing. Not always the best housing, certainly – often not very nice housing – but they had housing nonetheless. When the federal government’s role in supporting housing opportunities was changed in Reagan’s reinvention of government, large numbers of people who were living in the not very nice housing found themselves with no housing at all. They became "the homeless," and 25 years later the Bush administration has chosen to focus on a subsection of "the homeless" that they call "chronic." From poor to homeless to chronically homeless, who will they want us to write plans on next? The left-handed blue-eyed homeless?
What happened to our humanity in addressing poverty? Homeless people are just that, people; they’re not "the homeless." They’re people just like anybody reading this. They love, they learn, they get pissed off, they have good days and they have some really, really bad days as well. They are people living their lives day by day. The only difference is that they live their lives without housing. With all the silly studies that HUD loves to praise people like Dennis Culhane or Phil Mangano for, isn’t it ironic that HUD never praises people who study HUD? But they sure study the hell out of poor people without housing, they study social service programs, and every other week come up with a new "business-based best practices program." They especially love to study Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) to best "track and count the homeless," so long as "the homeless" being counted aren’t the 914,000 kids without housing in our Public School system.
With more than 480 5-year local Continuum of Care plans initiated by the Clinton administration and more than 300 (and growing) Ten Year Plans initiated by the Bush administration, it’s long past time for HUD to stop studying us and take a good long hard look in the mirror.
We’ll even save them the money of doing another study. Here are the facts:
Since 1996, HUD funding for new public housing has been ZERO, while over 100,000 public housing units have been lost to demolition, sale or other removal in that same period.
In 2005, federal homeowner subsidies totaled more than $122 billion, while HUD affordable housing outlays were only $31 billion – a difference of more than $91 billion.
In 1978 (pre-homelessness), HUD’s budget was $83 billion. By 1983 (when shelters opened nationwide), HUD’s budget had been reduced to $18 billion. In 2006 HUD’s budget was $29 billion.
In recent years over 200,000 private sector rental units have been lost annually, and 1.2 million unsubsidized affordable housing units disappeared from 1993-2003.
For rural communities dependent on USDA Section 515 funding, the Bush Administration is proposing eliminating this funding altogether. Up until 1985 this vital housing development program produced a yearly average of 31,000 new units of affordable housing a year.
The list goes on and on, and goes back to 1979. Emergency shelters opened throughout the country in 1982 and 1983, and by the time the Stewart B. McKinney Act passed in 1987 they were a pretty well established part of local communities, as they are still today. Before Congressman McKinney passed away – and a reluctant President Reagan signed his bill – the McKinney Act was originally called the "Urgent Relief for the Homeless Act." Urgent relief from policy decisions created under the premises that the market would "take care of itself," and that government’s role is to subsidize the market rather then subsidizing places for poor people to live. The market would take care of them.
Before the Great Depression we were told that the market would take care of itself, but the rest of us have to take care of ourselves. After the crash, we – as a nation – put in place systemic safety nets for the poorest among us so that they wouldn’t fall when the market failed.
Homelessness is not an intractable human experience. It is not created by dysfunctional individuals. Homelessness is the result of dysfunctional social policy and funding priorities. When the federal government was investing in housing through HUD and USDA housing and community development programs, we didn’t need the urgent relief of McKinney homeless assistance funding. We had housing.
Paul Boden is the Executive Director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project made up of grassroots homeless organizations up and down the West Coast.