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Rosanne Haggerty

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Homelessness Is a Solvable Problem

Posted: 07/07/11 06:42 PM ET

Homelessness is a solvable problem. Yet there is an enormous gap between what we know works to end homelessness and what is actually done in most places. This week we are launching a new not-for-profit organization, Community Solutions, to try to close this gap.

Our Community Solutions team has been working on this question for several years. Community Solutions was incubated at Common Ground, the organization I founded over twenty years ago to build housing for homeless and low income adults. At Common Ground, we were part of a movement that helped to prove that providing a homeless person with a stable home connected to the health, mental health, employment or other help he or she needed and ended that individual's homelessness for good over 90 percent of the time. We also helped to show that fixing the problem with "supportive housing" costs less than having homeless people drift between shelters, emergency rooms and jails: from one institution to another.

But we also saw that building and operating housing alone did not significantly impact the numbers of those who became homeless or how long they remained on the streets or in shelters. To learn why, we began interviewing those living on the street, discovering the details of their situations, the help they would accept and their basic housing requirements. This shift of focus from institution to the individual person or family experiencing homelessness changed our understanding of the issue, and evolved into the planning for Community Solutions.

It may sound simple, but directly asking the homeless about their situation began exploding prevailing myths about homelessness, such as the notion that homeless people want to be homeless. What we found were men and women who did not want to go to shelters, but were willing to work with us to find a real home.

Community Solutions' purpose is to strengthen communities through the process of ending homelessness. We provide a platform, data, tools, best practices and encouragement to assist communities in closing the knowledge to practice gap by building local housing systems that protect vulnerable people from homelessness. We provide assistance in housing development, management and community health systems and, most importantly, in integrating these systems to support vulnerable people. We see our collaborators as anyone who has anything to bring to this effort: other not-for-profits, landlords, property developers, philanthropists, hospitals, businesses, government agencies, concerned citizens. Most of all, we have organized and support a network of problem solvers working on this issue throughout the country and internationally who generously share their successes and failures and innovate as a group to accelerate the spread of new ideas.

We learned from our conversations with men and women living on the street that most were extensive users of government and not-for-profit services intended to help them. They repeatedly fell between the cracks, however, because the services themselves were not connected. We heard again and again how someone had entered the hospital for treatment, or a program for alcohol detox and been discharged back to the street, only to go through the process again within months. Many had life-threatening illnesses.

Though their health issues were directly related to their living conditions, the hospitals and treatment programs were not linked to housing, so they became sicker and sicker. We also discovered that many were trapped in homelessness because of the extensive and unrealistic requirements of institutions, such as needing a copy of their birth certificate or that they show proof of income or good credit in order to qualify for housing -- an unlikely prospect for someone living on the streets for months or years.

We began helping one person at a time push through bureaucratic processes to qualify for, and find, a home and get connected to the help needed to put their life back on track. We started with those who had been homeless the longest and were in the most fragile health. We saw these individuals succeed in their homes at astonishing rates, and we also began to see, for the first time, steady decreases in homelessness.

The process of placing vulnerable individuals at the center of a system for ending homelessness evolved into the core work of Community Solutions. A year ago, with many partners, we launched the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national movement to mobilize communities throughout the country to house 100,000 homeless in a three year period. Over 80 communities are involved, and the campaign is on track to meet its goal. We are also applying this process in neighborhoods with high rates of homelessness, to build a reliable and cost-effective model for preventing homelessness that can be shared with other communities. Our vision is to change beliefs and practices about housing for vulnerable people and make homelessness a thing of the past.

The solution to homelessness is simple: We all need a stable home, supportive relationships, access to good quality health and mental health care and a way of supporting ourselves and contributing to our communities. These pieces come together for most of us in the United States and other wealthy countries, and when they don't, most of us can rely on a family member or friend to help us deal with the economic disruption of an illness, lost job, relationship breakdown or the paperwork requirements of the institutions and government agencies whose assistance we need.

Look around to see who is without those supports, however, and you understand who is most likely to become homeless. Thus, the solution to homelessness is for communities to help those without their own effective networks to knit together the pieces of a stable and purposeful life.

Through the campaign and our work in challenged neighborhoods, we are seeing something quite extraordinary take shape. Communities that believed they had few resources to work with discover a hidden abundance when ending homelessness becomes a community project. When housing authorities, local service organizations, the local Veterans Affairs staff, faith-based groups, public hospitals, businesses and neighbors work together to solve the housing problems of specific homeless men and women in their community, they find ways to multiply their resources and succeed in fixing something they believed was irreparably broken. We have also seen that when whole communities come together to do this for their most vulnerable members, they become stronger communities for all, better connected, more confident, more attuned to the generosity of neighbors that is waiting to be tapped, more aware of their many assets, more capable of solving tough problems.

We have designed Community Solutions to be a catalyst for uncovering and integrating these local strengths.

To reflect our theory of change, we intend for Community Solutions to be a new kind of not-for-profit: a connector and collaborator, working in the gaps between systems and communities to restore essential missing links. We have already witnessed the power of collaboration and crowd-sourced problem solving to eliminate barriers to housing: in less than a year, communities working together through the 100,000 Homes Campaign have housed twice as many homeless individuals as we housed as a traditional not-for-profit in our first 21 years! We want to offer a supportive community for those drawn to this issue by a deep sense of mission and urgency, committed to doing whatever it takes to fix things. We see a need, a longing even, for such an organization and way of working.

Rosanne Haggerty is Founder and President of Community Solutions.

 

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