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Joel John Roberts Headshot

Prioritizing Most Vulnerable Homeless Reduces Street Homelessness

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Last week a group of 100 community volunteers once again came together in the darkness of the early morning to canvass their streets in order to survey and prioritize the most vulnerable homeless persons. Just south of Los Angeles, the beach city of Long Beach has struggled to address its homeless population for decades.

Back in July 2009, the same number of volunteers surveyed the city's downtown streets and found 345 homeless persons. Of those counted, a third were vulnerable with years of homelessness and some type of disability or illness. After the survey, the community rallied to house almost 80 people surveyed.

This was part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, where nearly 90 cities across the country are implementing the same approach to house their homeless population. More than 10,000 homeless persons have been housed through this campaign.

Two years later, Long Beach was one of the first cities in the country to implement a second survey, with the same boundaries, same month of the year, and same time of the day (4:30 AM to 7:00 AM).

At the onset of this local campaign in 2009, community leaders were skeptical. With nearly 50,000 homeless people throughout the Los Angeles region, many local Long Beach leaders thought a campaign to house its homeless population would simply be an open invitation for other homeless persons from around the region to inundate their city.

You could call this the replacement effect. If you house one homeless person won't another homeless person from another town, or another neighborhood, just fill his or her place?

This brings the magnet effect. If the region finds out that your local city is aggressively housing its homeless population, won't such a campaign attract people from other parts?

Such skepticism was certainly on the minds of the leaders of last week's homeless survey. Two years ago, 345 homeless persons were on the downtown streets. What if today that number doubled? Would a campaign to house its vulnerable population be a failure?

Certainly, housing 80 hurting people is a success in itself. But in the past three decades, homeless service agencies have been serving and housing thousands of homeless persons, without much impact on the number of people on the streets. In fact, in the past 30 years, homelessness has increased dramatically.

So last week, when teams of eager community volunteers returned to the campaign's base station, in the fellowship hall of a local church, the total number surveyed were on the top of the leaders' minds.

The stories of people surveyed, however, instilled an emotional drive to succeed. Two nineteen-year-old teenagers were found huddling together in a trash dump. A small homeless family was found sleeping in their vehicles.

No matter what the total number would be, the fact that this community was proactively discovering who they wanted to house was the true success story.

By the morning of the third day, the numbers showed a significant drop in people living on the streets of downtown Long Beach, a 13 percent reduction from 345 to 300 people. Such a successful result superseded the worst economy since the Depression and an increase in homelessness in other parts of the city.

Leaders were able to overcome the skepticism of replacement and magnet effects. Instead, the result bolstered a reduction effect, where the numbers of people on the streets are actually reduced. And a replication effect, where other parts of the region (and for that matter, the country) could duplicate the model.

Let's not forget that there are still 300 hurting people living on the streets in this community who desperately need housing. But simple victories in a large-scale struggle to end homelessness should be savored.

I'm just glad that a campaign to house the most vulnerable homeless neighbors in a community just plain works.