Help for the homeless
In 2000, hundreds of local communities joined the National Alliance to End Homelessness in a pledge to end homelessness in their jurisdictions in 10 years. Today, many have made notable progress, but more often than not, that progress has been undermined by tough times and budget-cuts.
"The mechanisms to address homelessness are sound, but what do you do when the economy crashes and you can't put any more resources into the service continuum?" says Jodi Royal-Goodwin, housing and neighborhood development administrator of Reno, Nev.
Royal-Goodwin says the problem in Reno can be gauged by the number of homeless people camping along the Truckee River and waiting outside the city's Community Assistance Center (CAC). The numbers have more than doubled recently, to 250+ persons in November. Reasons for the increase include cuts in the state budget for mental health and outpatient services, benefit cessation for the long-term unemployed, and a decrease in day labor construction jobs, according to Royal-Goodwin.
Reno also provides deposit assistance for families that have established an income, but experience difficulty paying utility deposits and first month's rent for housing. Providing $500 to help with the transition to stable housing has paid dividends: some 90 percent of recipients are still housed a year later.
With a budget just under $2 million, a cooperative agreement among Washoe County and Reno and Sparks, Nev., provides homeless services at the CAC, and is operated by Volunteers of America. The center offers more than 300 beds including housing for 27 homeless families, as well as access to job assistance and social services.
In New York, the scale of the homeless problem is so large, approaches have to be different, says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst of New York's Coalition for the Homeless. New York houses some 48,000 persons a night in shelters, a two-thirds increase from a decade ago. The numbers may be larger now, but the city has found a way to keep its homeless population out of the cold.
New York offers a "legal right to shelter," which keeps tens of thousands of people off the streets. According to Markee, city and state governments provide subsidies to build housing and fund ongoing services for the homeless, and also provide much of the $1 billion in homeless funding for the city.
New York also fosters permanent supportive housing, an approach that combines subsistence housing with on-site social services like mental health treatment or addiction counseling. University of Pennsylvania research has shown the approach in New York saves tax dollars when compared to costs of imprisonment, and hospitalization for those who are mentally ill. For the first time, the state government under Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D – NY) is proposing using Medicaid dollars to build permanent supportive housing.
Across the country, Seattle has a robust service system to address homelessness, including an emergency shelter system, services for youth and young adults, and help programs for victims of domestic violence. Facility-based transitional housing provides up to 24 months of shelter.
The programs are a necessity as a point-in-time count conducted in January 2013, showed 2,736 homeless individuals in King County (which includes Seattle), a 2 percent increase over the previous year.
To combat the problem, Seattle has instituted a housing levy. (Since 1981, Seattle voters have approved one bond and four levies to create affordable housing.) The levy provides revenue to support the city's affordable housing programs, and King County provides additional county-wide funds from various tax levies.
More than 5,130 units for homeless persons have been added to the affordable housing system in the last seven years. Of those, 2,224 units are designated for chronically homeless individuals, and those who are disabled, have chemical dependency, mental illness, physical disabilities, etc. The commitment to affordable housing in Seattle supports a Housing First model, which provides housing as a first step to social stability, and then offers services to stabilize and support housing tenure.
"Homelessness is a visible indicator of a weakening of our safety nets, cuts in federal and state resources, and the economy, but the same underlying problems have been contributing to homelessness for a long time," says Andrea Akita, planning and development supervisor, transition living and support division of Seattle's Human Services Department.
Larry Anderson is a Georgia-based freelance writer.