Every year, the National Alliance to End Homelessness hosts the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. Every year, advocates, practitioners, and service providers from across the country gather in the nation's capital to see what we've learned to improve data, to advance program performance, to reduce homelessness. Every year, we come together to renew our hope for a country in which everyone has a place to call home -- and it's always a memorable event.
But this year is particularly special.
This year, the recession has focused the nation's attention on the plight of the economically vulnerable. This year, the federal government's investment to curb homelessness resulting from the recession -- called the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program -- reached the hands and pockets of Americans across the country. This year, the Administration released the first ever federal blueprint for action on reducing and ending homelessness, called Opening Doors.
But most importantly, for us at the Alliance, this year is the 10-year anniversary of our own Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.
A decade ago, the Alliance released A Plan, Not a Dream: How to End Homelessness in Ten Years.
In it, we recommended strategies and practices that local communities could implement to systematically reduce -- and ultimately end -- homelessness at the local level. The Plan was not just aspirational and it was not just about spending more on the problem. It was a call to action around a series of practical steps that we -- based on research, data and experience from the previous 15 years -- believed would actually solve the problem. We emphasized the importance of data, prevention, and a focus on getting people back into housing. If all communities across the country implemented the plan, we challenged, we could end homelessness in America.
Cities across the country responded. To date, there are over 266 plans to end homelessness adapted from the original document. And they have had a huge impact. Cities that have implemented the key strategies have seen measurable reductions in their homeless populations in spite of the financial troubles of the past few years.
Now, ten years later, we pause to evaluate our progress -- and two things are crystal clear.
First, homelessness still exists in our country. Bottom line -- there are still people across the country without housing. Every night in the United States, hundreds of thousands of individuals and families sleep in shelters and on the streets without a roof of their own. Our mission, and the work that lies ahead, is abundantly clear.
But something else is just as clear: we are closer than ever to ending homelessness.
Our Ten Year Plan created a movement to end homelessness in the nation. Ten years ago, the focus was on building a bigger homeless system to accommodate the problem. Today, the focus is on solving the problem -- on being better and smarter rather than just bigger. It's a solution, not a band-aid. It's housing, not shelter. Today the idea of planning to end homelessness is well accepted -- and indeed that we are all pulling together in that direction.
And I mean all of us -- the effects of this movement are being felt in hundreds of communities:
In Chicago, IL, overall homelessness is down 12 percent; in Denver, CO, it's down 13 percent.
And those numbers have echoed to the national level. From 2005 to 2007, overall homelessness reduced 10 percent across the country. And even in these difficult economic times, homelessness has held steady amid fears of a drastic rise.
Now, at this critical moment in the movement to end homelessness in the country, we look forward.
Here at the Alliance, we're focusing on three things that will make an immediate difference in ending homelessness:
• We're focusing on housing the most vulnerable. At our conference, Common Ground of New York, joined by the Alliance and communities from across the nation, launched the 100,000 Homes Campaign, an effort to house the 100,000 most vulnerable homeless people in three years. There is no reason that people with mental illness, elderly people, people with HIV/AIDS, or scores of other vulnerable people should spend years living on the streets. This should be ended immediately.
• We're focusing on health care. People become homeless every day because untreated illnesses make them unable to work or because medical bills have bankrupted them. Health care reform should help with that. We want to make sure that uninsured homeless people are enrolled in Medicaid as soon as possible. Decent health care will help end homelessness.
• We're focusing on performance. Our system of homelessness shelters and programs should help people back into housing quickly, not warehouse them. To accomplish that, we challenge communities to set a new goal: no one will be homeless for longer than 20 days. This does not mean that people are shuffled through the system -- it means that our homeless system is organized enough to help someone exit the shelter system quickly.
The burden is on us. In July 2000, when we first announced the plan, it was my hope that, ten years later, I could say that homelessness had ended. July of 2010 is here, but I cannot report that our goal has been achieved. Our streets and shelters remain filled with people who have no place to call home.
But what I can say is that we are closer now than we were ten years ago. There is a new approach to homelessness, and that approach is to end it. And because of the progress that has been made, we can now begin to see what ending homelessness looks like.
Follow Nan Roman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/naehomelessness