If ending homelessness is simply a matter of putting people in housing, why do we need a system of care? The answer is that homelessness is not homogenous. Each person has a story. Each person becomes homeless for different, and not always obvious reasons. Iain de Jong, one of the greatest thinkers on ending homelessness, said, “Homelessness is not the result of drug abuse, the vast majority of drug abusers have housing; homelessness is not the result of alcoholism, the vast majority of alcoholics have housing; homelessness is not about mental illness, the vast majority of people with mental health issues are housed.” He is correct that a large percentage of homeless people could be housed with a stable job, and a security deposit, or a few months’ rent, or a repair of their credit.
But, the truth is, that these issues, and poverty, and disability, and many other personal problems make it harder to house people. A system of care with mental health, public health, law enforcement, other service and resource providers is needed to house the most vulnerable and keep them housed.
In 2015, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (a George W. Bush administration creation) published a sweeping plan to end homelessness: Opening Doors. This plan served as the backbone of the Obama Administration’s homelessness policy as well. While the current president did not take up the banner of this approach, his administration left its implementation unchanged. And, the Department of Housing and Urban Development continues to fund and support the programs. Millions of federal dollars are often matched by state funds, and funneled through the system this legislation created, to pay for many of the homeless services in your community.
The most innovative component of this program is its emphasis on locally controlled Continuums of Care (CoCs)that were set up as independent commissions made up of multiple stakeholders — elected officials, local government administrators, housing authorities, nonprofit and for-profit housing developers, business leaders, faith leaders, and current or formerly homeless people themselves. Many of these roles were mandated in the federal legislation. These are in 700 communities around the nation. There is at least one in your area. Why should you care? Because the way the law is written, ANYONE who is interested in homelessness as a problem is welcome to attend these public meetings and help to decide how to best spend public funds. In essence we ALL are members of the CoCs around the country.
Every community is charged with counting the homeless people in their midst (Point In Time Count) at least every two years. All are encouraged to create a by-name list of homeless people and assess them for vulnerability. This process allows us to know who is homeless and who is most likely to die on the streets. Then, the funding that is allocated is used to rapidly house people. (I’ll cover housing the homeless in a separate piece).
Every COC has regular meetings. They all decide on priorities, ways of conducting service, best approaches, who gets funded, and even the best process for deciding how to allocate the funds. In short, this homeless strategy may be one of the most democratic and collaborative government systems in the United States — and I wonder if you have even heard of it!
If you care about homelessness and want to end it. I highly suggest you check out your local Continuum of Care and find out what they are up to. They are the seat of both policy and funding for homelessness. Now, not all funding goes through them. In fact, when cities and counties are focused on homelessness, they often raise far more money to end homelessness outside of this federally mandated system. But, many of these programs are often plugged into the CoCs in their communities as well.
It is often said it takes a village to raise a child. The same could be said of ending homelessness. Fortunately, we have these villages all across America! A well-run CoC allows for myriad points of view to be represented, programs to be identified and tracked, innovations to emerge, and solutions to be found. Ultimately, it means that people get housed and that the most vulnerable are housed most quickly. It’s not a perfect system, but it is more collaborative than most.
Are you a member of your CoC? Do you have stories about how a system helped house people in your community? Share them with me!