So many national and local homeless and poverty initiatives have been implemented in this country, it is hard to keep up with them. The 1960s War on Poverty, and most recently, the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness were well-intended initiatives. But for those of us on the frontlines of America's Third World, they seemed like an over-hyped bandwagon of political leaders just looking for a compassionate sound bite.
With years of battling political agendas and insufficient resources, I have this jaded edge that sometimes cuts through my optimism. I press on, only because there are so many hurting people struggling on our streets.
I spent two days sitting around a table with a group of leaders from across the country, with our laptops propped open and a projector flashing the group's ideas on the wall. We were holed up in a window-less conference room just blocks from the Las Vegas strip. To an outsider, the room probably resembled President Clinton's political campaign war room, with maps, numbers, city names and policy ideas being tossed about.
This small group of seasoned professionals who have spent years implementing programs or designing policies to house people possessed so much creativity and experience that I'm sure Apple Computer recruiters could have been knocking on the door.
This was the national leadership team of Common Ground's 100K Homes Campaign. Across the room sat a leader who promotes Permanent Supportive Housing like it is the gospel solution to homelessness, a woman who runs a housing agency and is happy to share her scars from years of political battles, and a formerly homeless man who has become known nationally for providing the voice of homeless people via video. And that was just the tip of this talent iceberg.
The question for this gathering was simple... how do we house 100,000 homeless people in the next three years? How do we do this without it becoming just another national initiative with its good intentions, but lacking enough resources and community will to actually succeed? And as if to make it some demented barrier, how do we house the most vulnerable, sick and chronically homeless persons in the country?
Projected on the wall was a spreadsheet that contained a mathematical formula that could project future housing placements depending on the numbers punched in -- rate of housing placements per month, number of communities enrolled, etc.
I wish I had listened more intently to the professors of my college math classes years ago. Most of the discussion flew way over my head.
Until the discussion turned to innovation. Someone tells the group that if we pull up our bootstraps we could easily house 50 chronic homeless persons. But if we want to house 1,000 or 10,000 people, we need to change the system.
Another person jumped in stating that we need to turn this campaign into a national emergency. This country responds quickly and generously when we see hurting people tragically struggling to overcome some crisis.
We need to break down all the barriers that are preventing people from accessing housing, chimes in a person two chairs down from me. Criminal records, income and citizenship problems force some people into homelessness.
What if we just house people? Break the rules and just place them into housing, then deal with the barriers and broken policies later.
What if we convince federal government leaders to change the rules? Mandate that existing federal housing funds be used to house the most vulnerable homeless on our streets. There's billions of dollars spent each year. How about a Presidential decree, proposes another.
When numbers fly across the room, my attention span shortens. But when innovation becomes the center of attention, I sit up.
Slowly, the skepticism that fogs my perspective on another do-gooder national initiative dissipates. The leader of our group says it best, "This could really happen. Housing 100,000 of the most chronic homeless persons is doable."
Not only doable, I think. It is actually happening. So far, almost 5,000 homeless people have been placed in apartments in 63 cities throughout the country. And this is just the beginning. That confusing mathematical equation shows a graph with a steep rise.
This battle-torn, nonprofit homeless agency executive just became a convert. Not because the formula works. Not because it is just a good thing to house a hurting homeless person. Not because we spent hours planning, discussing, and eating together, with our laughing and crying.
But because the leaders around this room, who have gone through their own jaded battles to house homeless people, are instilled with enthusiasm and conviction for a campaign that they believe will make history -- the beginning of the end of homelessness in America.
Where do I sign up?