Homeless Advocates Come Together for Solutions
In an effort to incorporate the concerns of local communities in their plan to end homelessness across the country, an interagency council has conducted stakeholder meetings with everyone from government workers and homelessness advocacy groups to homeless individuals in attendance.
“It’s the first comprehensive plan by the federal government that will look at preventing and ending homelessness in the entire country,” said Jason Kravitz, spokesman for the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH).
Kravitz said the stakeholder input part of the plan creation was intended to help the interagency council collect views from across the country about what local communities are doing to address homelessness and what they feel are the biggest issues in addressing the problem.
“I think everyone is very passionate about the issue of homelessness,” Kravitz said. “If they’ve worked on it in their locality, they are very passionate about what works and what doesn’t work. We are trying to make [the process] as open and transparent as possible.”
Jeremy Rosen, the executive director of National Policy and Advocacy Council on Homelessness, said the process represents a much better effort that the interagency council has done before to get feedback on homelessness issues – issues that received little attention under the previous White House administration.
“It’s commendable that they are actually getting something done,” Rosen said.
It is important that the federal officials take into account the opinions and advice of those people who have the experience working on the problem of homelessness in their local areas every day, he said.
Rosen said the next step is to see if everyone’s ideas are actually incorporated into the final plan and how the plan is implemented.
Stephen Thomas, a speaker with the National Coalition for the Homeless and the director of Community Outreach and Development of STREATS, a non–profit project, attended a meeting in Washington, D.C. “Everyone thought we have the same dilemma through the country, which is lack of funding,” he said.
Thomas said that everyone agreed that even though funds are set aside for homelessness, when other departments in city governments need extra money, they almost always take funds from social services, especially those funds earmarked for social services. “There is always something that needs to be paid for, but why do you have to always take from those in the greatest need?”
Thomas, who used to be homeless, said he was probably the only person in the meeting who had actually experienced homelessness, but he was amazed at the commitment and knowledge of the other people in the room. He sometimes had to explain to government officials from some agencies, like the Department of Transportation, how they played a role in helping to stop homelessness though.
He said, while in a smaller discussion group with a high–ranking official from the department, the official looked at him and said it was his first time being involved in the process of addressing homelessness and he was not sure what part transportation could play in helping.
“I had to explain to him that just because people are homeless doesn’t mean they don’t need ways to get places,” Thomas said. “They need it to seek education, job training, employment opportunities, and even just to get a meal.”
Thomas said overall, what he saw in the meetings was a genuine attempt from the Obama administration to address the issue of homelessness and that the facilitators of the meeting from the U.S. Interagency really listened and encouraged positive discussions on the problem.
“As a homeless advocate, I found it quite an honor to be invited,” he said. “And I was even more honored that in being the only homeless person in the room, I wasn’t looked down upon and they engaged me in every step of the way.”
These meetings, in addition to a Web forum, are an effort by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. The plan is being formulated as part of the HEARTH Act. The “stakeholder input” portion of the plan creation ended March 22, so the interagency council could compile all the information they collected and incorporate it into the plan.
The HEARTH Act passed on May 20, 2009, allocated millions more dollars to homelessness prevention, quickly rehousing homeless families and providing permanent supportive housing for homeless people with disabilities. The bill, which was included as part of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act, reauthorized the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance programs, which represent the largest federal investment in preventing and ending homelessness.
Stakeholder forums were held in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Seattle. More than 900 people participated in the forums across the country, according to USICH. The website allowed users to submit comments and vote on other people’s submissions, comments and suggestions. The site attracted more than 7,000 visits and more than 2,000 recorded individual comments.
Elizabeth Curtis, the executive director of the Massachusetts Interagency Council on Homelessness, attended a meeting in February in Boston, where interagency workers gathered from across New England. There were about 40 attendees at this particular meeting, who sat at small tables of four to seven people, while a facilitator from the U.S. Interagency asked them a series of questions for discussions. After each set of questions, individuals would switch tables so everyone could have the chance to exchange ideas with all those present.
“It was absolutely fascinating,” Curtis said. “Even though we all live in different places and are day–today focused on different things, there was broad agreement on what works.”
Curtis said that common themes that arose during the meeting included improving prevention and rehousing resources, increasing affordable housing stock through a variety of programs targeted to different types of households, developing a shared definition of homelessness, and eliminating of agency silos – barriers in exchanging information between agencies – in order to better share goals, targets and accountability.
The meetings stressed that the greatest hurdles the USICH would face in creating its plan would be coordinating the different agencies that address homelessness in some way, she said.