Thursday, October 10, 2013

Solving homelessness means putting housing first

by Marice Fernando, National Housing Conference

Atlanta's historic Imperial Hotel, rear, once
abandoned, now under renovation
into 90+ units of supportive housing
The city of Atlanta was recently recognized for its effort to house a record number (more than 700) of homeless individuals this year, including 100 veterans. The city’s goal is to find homes for a total of 800 homeless individuals by the end of 2013 as part of the initiative “Unsheltered No More.” The program “seeks to catalyze a new level of coordination among all of the public, private, nonprofit and faith-based organizations that serve the homeless—and to set Atlanta on a path to meeting the federal government’s goal of ending chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015.” According to the 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report compiled by HUD, there are more than 6,000 homeless individuals in the metro Atlanta area with more than 1,200 being “chronically homeless” meaning “…continuously homeless for one year or at least four times in the last three years and has a disabling condition, such as a substance use disorder or a mental illness.” These individuals are the most vulnerable of the homeless population.

“Unsheltered No More” provides housing first and then other supportive services, as part of a growing national movement to provide housing first without imposing prerequisites (such as participation in a treatment program or sobriety) on the individuals being housed. The belief behind this is that once homeless individuals are housed they will be encouraged to make positive decisions about their health and overall well-being to stay housed, giving them both independence and a sense of pride. The 100,000 Homes Campaign, of which Atlanta is a part, seeks to reduce homelessness by providing housing first. In addition to Atlanta, there are 219 communities across the U.S. participating in the 100,000 Homes Campaign with a collective goal of housing 100,000 homeless individuals by July 2014. Thus far, the campaign has successfully housed 70,399 individuals, including 19,912 veterans. Each city’s or community’s progress is tracked monthly.

“Unsheltered No More” strategies to reduce homelessness include: building a coordinated outreach strategy to reach and prioritize the most vulnerable, and developing an intake, assessment, and triage process that will match homeless individuals with their housing and service needs. In January 2013 over 100 volunteers went out into the city to survey Atlanta’s homeless about their housing and health needs. The program also seeks to expand permanent supportive housing and create a model for temporary re-housing assistance, in addition to eliminating barriers (such as criminal backgrounds) that hinder access to social services. Being from Atlanta and volunteering with the homeless population throughout high school and college, I’m pleased to see the city has made addressing its homelessness crisis a priority.

Providing housing first makes sense because it is a first step to stability. Not only is housing important for health and safety reasons but even finding a job can be a challenge without a permanent address. Job applications often require the applicant to provide an address and phone number. How many employers would be willing to hire an individual who is homeless without any bias? Even if they were hired, how can the employer begin to contact the employee? How can they fill out forms for taxes and other benefits? These are simple question that a formerly homeless individual raised as they tried to transition off the streets. The added benefit to this community wide initiative is that it will better allow for coordination and collaboration—preventing efforts from being duplicated and identifying gaps that need to be addressed. This will hopefully maximize the resources to address homelessness and assist more individuals than if a few organizations were going about this effort alone. While there is obviously a lot of work to be done, and many more individuals are still in need of housing, providing a stable living environment is a key step toward ending the cycle of homelessness.

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