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Joel John Roberts Headshot

How Traditional Homeless Agencies Can Help End Homelessness

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Thirty years ago, the community-based organization that I run was created because a group of local people saw an increase in homelessness on the Westside of Los Angeles. They created an agency that would temporarily provide food and shelter, and believed that homelessness would end within five years.

That didn't happen.

Thirty years later, instead of streets with no homelessness, the opposite has occurred. Streets, parks, hills, beaches, sidewalks, alleys, and rivers are inundated with people who are homeless.

In recent years, experts on homelessness blamed the traditional homeless provider community for only offering temporary service and shelter solutions, and not providing more permanent housing. Much of the criticism is warranted. To blame these compassionate agencies for the rise in homelessness in the past few decades, however, is not.

The answers to ending homelessness in this country have changed dramatically since the days of setting up shelters. Programs, such as Housing First, Rapid Re-Housing, Prevention, are the new solutions to this entrenched social problem.

For traditional homeless agencies that centered their services around rehabilitation, transitional housing, shelters, and food, these recent newfangled solutions were not only foreign but seemed to run contrary to their belief that people need to be rehabilitated before they are offered permanent housing.

Most experts and funders, however, disagreed. So when funders redirected their resources to permanent housing, many homeless agencies in this country went out of business. In the past few years, the agency I run absorbed a handful of agencies that were nearly bankrupt.

Like any other trend in this country, providing programs to address homelessness had to change. Remember 8-track tapes, Kodak film, and IBM Selectric typewriters? You may not recall. But let's hope homeless shelters don't fall into this list of forgotten items.

So how do traditional homeless agencies stay relevant in a time when short-term solutions are out of vogue?

In my 18 years of running a traditional agency that started off as an emergency solution to homelessness, and most recently has converted to a permanent housing focus, I contend that traditional agencies are not only relevant but offer strategic solutions to today's approach of ending homelessness.

The expertise that homeless agencies have possessed for decades is key to ending homelessness. Although there are many strategic solutions that homeless agencies possess, let me explain two: support services and grass-roots support.

Support Services - While the housing first, permanent supportive housing solution has radically altered the way communities have approached homelessness, homeless agencies possess expertise that this new housing movement desperately needs.

Build new housing, or place people with housing vouchers in existing apartments, won't end homelessness unless we place the appropriate people into housing. Today, the priority for housing is people who are most chronically homeless on the streets. Many homeless agencies have the street-smarts and experienced outreach workers to find and place these people.

When people are finally housed, most homeless agencies have experienced case managers to provide the much needed support services for housed people. And, recently, creating a quality community experience for people who are housed is becoming a priority now that we are housing more people.

In the past two years, my agency has found and permanently housed nearly 40 people per week, two-thirds who were chronically homeless. Now, we have over 100 case workers (more than half that have a Master of Social Work) that provide support for nearly 3,000 formerly homeless people who are now housed.

Such a drastic change from our old shelter days.

Grass-Roots Support - In the past few decades, most privately-operated homeless agencies have built a strong network of community supporters who donate money and volunteer. These grass-roots supporters are key to the housing movement.

Our agency's network of thousands of supporters have offered land for building housing, created community gardens in apartment complexes, planned community activities for people housed, and helped mobilize friends and their faith community to furnish apartments for newly housed people.

What volunteer opportunity is more meaningful? Cook a meal for someone living in a shelter? Or get a group of your friends to find donated furniture and household goods, and move a person into their very own apartment?

Imagine the millions of people who currently support local homeless agencies change their approach by becoming supporters who help move people into their own housing?

I do believe that homeless programs have a significant role in ending this country's homelessness. Besides, as traditional homeless agencies transform into housing placement and retention entities they become less a forgotten Sony Walkman tape player, and more of a relevant Apple iPhone.