Serving Veterans in Rural America Requires City Engagement

After enduring years of Vermont winters on the streets, a homeless veteran finally found a place to call home through a partnership between regional nonprofits, the Veterans Administration and the City of Winooski, a town with a population of less than 7,300.

When asked about the impact on his life, he said, “this program has helped me stay sober for three years. I have been given not just a physical home, but also a state of mind home, and that is a great feeling.”

Replicating this success with other veterans in largely rural areas like Winooski requires regional cooperation between many stakeholders to overcome the unique challenges of long distances and sparsely populated areas.

From Service to Shelter, a report released this week by the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) and The Home Depot Foundation, highlights the troubling prevalence of veteran homelessness in rural America, resources available to address the issue and models for successful implementation.

The report found that veterans are over-represented in the homeless population in rural areas, and the overall rural veteran population is getting older. Currently, 43 percent of veterans in rural America are aged 65 or older, and that number is expected to rise to 70 percent in the next 10 years.

vets-stats-1-f

In recognition of these challenges and facts, a collaborative effort between HUD, VA and the Department of Labor has been piloted in five communities near major military installations. The Veteran Homelessness Prevention Demonstration (VHPD) targeted two of its locations near Ft. Hood and Ft. Drum, both of which have significant rural areas nearby.

While the pilot program’s evaluation is not yet finalized, two primary concerns and possible solutions have already emerged. The first challenge is not surprising. The large geographic size of rural areas makes service delivery challenging. To ease this challenge, officials are looking at ways to co-locate services delivered by federal agencies. By having all assistance in one stop, people can avoid multiple and costly trips.

The second challenge is the increased levels of isolation and the stigma associated with getting “help.” In a small community, the sense that “everyone knows everyone” appears to have the effect of discouraging people from accessing services that could help bring them out of homelessness. Federal officials realize that changing the location and manner of how services are delivered will be necessary to overcome this barrier. The precise process for doing this will require the insights and help of local leaders who can assist their federal partners with a more nuanced understanding of their community.

Efforts such as VHPD are part of an unprecedented level of federal support for homeless veterans. In support of the federal goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, the Administration has dramatically increased the availability of resources that serve veterans.

With the availability of resources at an all-time high, local coordination is the principal challenge. Having service providers identify homeless veterans, assess their needs in a coordinated manner and prioritize the delivery of services ensures that the right resources are delivered to the right person at the right time. Progress is being made and is reflected by the 24 percent reduction in veteran homelessness since 2010.

vets-stats-2-f
Information compiled by:
NCH

To help ensure veterans in rural areas have a safe place to call home, The Home Depot Foundation is partnering with HAC as part of its Affordable Housing for Rural Veterans Initiative. Through the initiative, HAC and The Home Depot Foundation have awarded grants totaling more than $260,000 to nine local nonprofit housing associations to build or preserve housing for veterans in rural America.

In addition to the grants, HAC provides rural nonprofits serving veterans with training, research and other assistance to help increase their capacity and allow them to better serve their communities.

To date, organizations in Maine, Washington, Tennessee, Texas and Florida have received assistance allowing nearly 100 veterans and their families to have a new home.

In the next month, an additional $250,000 in grants will be announced. For more information about HAC’s work for veterans in rural areas, visit www.ruralhome.org/veterans or contact Janice Clark at Janice@ruralhome.org.

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About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

What does the end of chronic veteran homelessness mean for cities?

Last month, Phoenix made the historic announcement that all of their chronically homeless veterans were off the streets. This amazing milestone is the result of collaboration between all parts of the community and the use of data to drive decisions and allocate resources. The accomplishment has sparked a national conversation about whether or not a city can end homelessness.

The success Phoenix has seen around chronically homeless veterans can serve as an example for other segments of the homeless population. As Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said while making his announcement last month, “The strategies that we’re using to end chronic homelessness among veterans are the exact same strategies that we’re going to use to end chronic homelessness among the broader population. This model – doing right by our veterans – is exactly how we’re going to do right by the larger population.”

The progress made in Phoenix does not mean that there are no more homeless in the city, or even that there are no more homeless veterans. Rather, it means that Phoenix has developed the necessary community structures or “social capital” to effectively and efficiently use resources to ensure persistently homeless veterans are no longer on the street. The development of these community structures can be built upon so that all chronically homeless veterans have a permanent home and are not simply off the street and in a shelter or transitional home.

People will always have unfortunate and tragic occurrences that push them over the edge from poverty into homelessness. However, as research has shown, it is difficult to determine why, for example, “John” becomes homeless while “Adam” does not, despite both being poor and facing similar situations.

People such as John will still need a safe place for a short period of time, like a shelter or transitional home. However, in communities with the proper coordination and the necessary resources, John will no longer become trapped in the cycle between shelter, transitional housing, and the streets. Instead, programs that can help rapidly re-house the homeless will be connected to emergency shelter locations and the service providers who administer other assistance programs. This network of collaborating housing providers can coordinate with healthcare providers, employment placement and training programs, educational opportunities, and more.

When done all at once, this process is so multi-faceted that it can become overwhelming. But what cities like Phoenix are showing is that progress can happen by initially focusing on a very specific subset of the homeless population, such as chronically homeless veterans. That progress is measurable. It saves lives and it saves money. This process has been described by Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry as “the smart way to do the right thing.”

An argument can be made that poverty will always exist. But chronic street homelessness is more than just poverty. It is a combination of personal tragedy, societal failures, individual choices, and institutional shortcomings. The successes happening in Phoenix, Salt Lake, Philadelphia, Houston, Albuquerque, and other cities gives hope to the idea that chronic homelessness no longer needs to be seen as a permanent fixture of urban life.

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About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

HUD Secretary Donovan: “Communities are assets to be built on”

Recently in Atlanta, federal, state, and local officials joined advocates and local practitioners to discuss solutions to housing issues facing communities across the country. During the event, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan spoke about the Administration’s recognition that housing is one of the primary pillars needed to help grow the middle class. Secretary Donovan noted, “communities are not places with problems to be solved, but assets to be built on.”

In outlining the vision of a “new federalism,” the Secretary noted that the federal government needed to again become a strong partner with local stakeholders. Donovan outlined several examples of this partnership such as the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Rental Assistance Demonstration. In addition, a renewed relationship between federal agencies and local partners is shown in the growing progress being made toward ending chronic veteran homelessness.

In the coming months, either Salt Lake City or Phoenix will become the first city in the nation to end chronic veteran homelessness. This unprecedented accomplishment is on the cusp of reality because of a focused and sustained commitment by both federal and local government officials, as well as non-governmental stakeholders in these communities.

At the federal level, since 2008, over 48,000 housing vouchers specifically designated for veterans have been distributed to communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Unlike traditional Housing Choice Vouchers (aka Section 8), HUD-VASH vouchers have additional support from VA case workers. As a result, both veterans and landlords have a resource should issues arise.

Also in 2008, the VA was authorized to begin the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. SSVF’s goal is to promote housing stability among very low-income veterans and their families who reside in or are transitioning to permanent housing. In FY13, the SSVF program provided nearly $300 million to 319 organizations to serve approximately 120,000 veteran households.

In 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released Opening Doors, a comprehensive plan to prevent and end homelessness, with the specific goal of ending chronic veteran homelessness by 2015. Ongoing support from Congress and the Administration for the HUD-VASH and SSVF programs, combined with improved implementation at the local level, has led to a 17% decline in veteran homelessness since the release of Opening Doors.

In Phoenix, these federal resources have been maximized by local stakeholders, including the city. To help reduce the amount of time between when a veteran is awarded a voucher and when they move in to a unit, the two city departments that are required to conduct housing inspections collaborated to allow for one inspection to occur that met both agencies’ requirements. In addition, the city has supported a locally developed innovation called a navigator with funds from their Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Emergency Solutions Grant programs. The navigators provide peer support to chronically homeless veterans by walking them step-by-step through the process and providing assistance when necessary to make certain they obtain and sustain housing.

In Salt Lake City, stakeholders recognized they were starting their efforts to end veteran homelessness with imperfect data. To overcome this, partners began regular meetings to identify the veterans in need, come to agreement about what people should be prioritized, and determine what resources were available in the community to meet those needs.

In addition to these steps, city, county, and state officials worked to create a uniform reporting process for organizations using federal Emergency Shelter Grant resources. These resources were primarily being used to fund rapid re-housing efforts, and the uniform reporting reduced administrative time and costs associated with their use. As a result, since February 2013, Salt Lake City has been placing the homeless into housing at a rate that puts the city on a path to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the coming months.

Finally, in Tacoma, WA, community stakeholders have come together to form a Veterans Housing Options Group. The group consists of the WA State Department of Veterans Affairs, the two local agencies administering SSVF, and representatives from the regional VA office. The work to improve how services are delivered to homeless veterans is being complemented by the city, which has encouraged the WA State Housing Finance Commission to consider including a veteran preference when determining how federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits are distributed. In addition, the city is considering actions that would benefit homeless veterans, including inclusionary zoning requirements and voluntary housing development incentives, among others.

In an environment of limited fiscal resources, Secretary Donovan is correct when he acknowledges that cities are where innovations are born and progress is made. But these innovations cannot happen when there is persistent uncertainty about the level of federal resources and where those resources will be directed. Increasing partnerships between the federal government and municipal officials is a common sense notion that requires sustained support in order to see results. In their own ways, these cities are illustrating how progress on an issue can be made when local governments have focused and committed partners at the federal level.

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About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Senior Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.

For the Love of Eminent Domain

The City of Richmond, California has been abandoned and cast adrift by all those partners who might logically be expected to support local governments facing severe challenges to the local economy and the real estate market. Into the void stepped the private firm Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP) peddling a grand solution to solve a prolonged and severe disruption in the housing market – use of eminent domain to acquire mortgages with negative equity.

Millions of homeowners have been foreclosed upon in the last six years. California cities have borne a disproportionate share of foreclosures. City leaders in Richmond naturally want to help their residents either by using their own resources or acting in concert with other partners (federal, state, nonprofit, etc.). But everywhere the city looked for timely, serious, and long-term help, no credible partner could be found.

From the Administration came the priority to bail-out banks under TARP, as well as the minimalist Neighborhood Stabilization Program. NSP was so inadequate to the task that its impact proved to be very small indeed. Congress took its pound of flesh in the form of large budget reductions in the Community Development Block Grant program. This is one of the few remaining sources of flexible spending at the local level – spending designed to serve critical housing needs for low and moderate income families. CDBG has become the whipping boy for Members of Congress more interested in centralized control than they are in innovative problem solving.

At the state level, California eliminated the 400 local redevelopment agencies (RDA’s) in 2012 following a state Supreme Court ruling. For decades, those funds had been used successfully to eliminate urban blight and support affordable housing. When he was mayor of Oakland, Governor Jerry Brown used RDA funds to restore the historic Fox Theater. Now those funds are used to help the state balance their mismanaged budget on the backs of cash-starved localities and their low- and moderate-income residents.

And finally, we come to Mortgage Resolution Partners, the white knight galloping to the city’s rescue with a plan to save homes and secure the future of neighborhoods. MRP’s plan however, takes the much cherished and highly valuable power of eminent domain and contorts its purpose and operation to such a degree as to be unrecognizable. Make no mistake, MRP’s advocacy of this strategy will have consequences for cities generally and for Richmond in particular.

If anything was learned in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case of Kelo v. City of New London, it is that state legislatures and Congress will look askance at local efforts to overreach on use of eminent domain. Mortgage Resolution Partners does a disservice to cities in urging them to take this approach to help borrowers at risk of foreclosure.

James Brooks is NLC’s Program Director for Community Development & Infrastructure. Follow him on twitter at @JamesABrooks.

New Report on Homelessness: The Good, The Bad, and What You Can Do

Last week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released their latest national estimate of the number of homeless across the country. While there are several points of good news, there are also sober realities that must be acknowledged.

The Good News

Broadly speaking, in January of this year 633,783 people were homeless. This is virtually unchanged since last year when 636,017 people were homeless. Given the soft economic climate, keeping homelessness from increasing is notable. Even more notable however is the continued decline among veterans and those defined as being chronically homeless. The decline in these two sub-populations of the homeless is a reflection of the ongoing focus on these categories by the federal government and communities since the unveiling of the Opening Doors plan from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2010.

In the last year, homelessness among veterans declined by 7.2% (4,876 people) and among the chronically homeless there was a 6.8% decline (7,254 people).

Focusing on the national disgrace of homeless veterans should need no explanation.

The focus on the chronic homeless is the result of time-tested and data-driven analysis, which shows the cost savings that result from moving the long-time homeless into housing. When people are stably housed, they are less likely to interact with the police, courts, and emergency responders. The resulting cost-savings to municipalities and states is a compelling fiscal rationale for focusing on eliminating homelessness, particularly during these times of tight budgets.

2010

2011

2012

Total Homeless

649,917

636,017

633,782

Homeless Veterans

76,329

67,495

62,619

Chronically Homeless

109,812

107,148

99,894

The Bad News

When the Opening Doors plan was released in 2010, it set the ambitious goals of ending veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015, and ending homelessness among children, families, and youth by 2020. The Plan presented strategies building upon the lesson that mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs must be fully engaged and coordinated to prevent and end homelessness.

Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that despite the consistent declines, unless more communities focus on service coordination, we are unlikely to reach the 2015 goal.

What You Can Do

Ultimately, homelessness as we know it will end once individual communities take the necessary steps to end it among neighbors. So what should cities be doing?

While recognizing the solution to homelessness in a community can be apparent, implementing that solution can be another matter. To help cities overcome these challenges the 100,000 Homes Campaign was formed in an effort to place 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless into housing.

To help with the local implementation of recognized best practices, the Campaign has partnered with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the VA, and HUD to offer Rapid Results Housing Placement Boot Camps. These boot camps bring together community stakeholders such as HUD and VA staffers, outreach teams, service providers, landlords, and housing authority representatives from participating communities to brainstorm and develop local plans for enacting national best practices that will revamp local systems to quickly find housing for homeless individuals.

What are other things that your city can do?

  • Get to know who the homeless are in your city. Knowing someone’s name and how long they have been homeless not only personalizes that individual, but allows a trusting relationship to be built. Those relationships are central to people getting off and staying off the streets.
  • Prioritize the use of vouchers that turn over for veterans and chronically homeless individuals. When a person that has a voucher moves out of the program, what is done with that voucher can vary widely depending on the administrating agency. Working with voucher providers to have turned over vouchers prioritized for use by veterans and the chronically homeless can have a dramatic impact on the number of people living on the street.
  • Create prioritization based on the vulnerability index. When someone lives on the street, the likelihood of them dying is on par with some forms of cancer. Homelessness can cut a person’s lifespan by an average of 25 years. These are stunning facts. In Boston, Dr. Jim O’Connell with Healthcare for the Homeless developed the vulnerability index which uses eight key health indicators to determine which of a city’s homeless are most at risk for dying on the street. To better save lives and dollars, those with the greatest risk of death should be at the front of the line for housing.
  • Align your city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness with the federal government’s Opening Doors plan. To guide your city’s overall work, it is important for your city’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness to be aligned with the federal government’s Opening Doors plan. Prioritizing resources and ensuring they are well coordinated and focused on identified populations allows cities to take action in a deliberate manner that can be measured and refined to ensure progress is seen.

Read the report and see your area’s progress toward ending homeless. For more information about having a Rapid Results Housing Placement Boot Camp in your city and the 100,000 Homes Campaign, visit http://100khomes.org/.

Sequestration Doesn’t Hurt Veterans, Right? Well actually…

It wasn’t too long ago when the term sequestration was one that practically no one used. Lately though, it seems that a news cast doesn’t go by without the word being mentioned. It is commonly thought that Congress and the Administration made sure sequestration would not hurt any programs that help our veterans, but that notion is false.

While Veterans Affairs (VA) programs are exempt from the cuts, non-VA programs that benefit veterans are still in line to see reductions (or to use some new inside-the-beltway jargon, “spending savings.”) More information about sequestration can be found on the NLC website.

Last week, a congressional briefing was held to outline and illustrate specific examples of how sequestration would impact veterans. One area in particular that would be impacted are non-VA housing programs including HUD’s public housing, housing vouchers, and project-based programs. Doug Rice at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities drew attention to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study which notes that in fiscal year 2005, “HUD’s rental assistance programs reached an estimated 250,000 low-income veteran households, which constituted approximately 6 percent of all HUD-assisted households.”

The housing development NLC highlighted that serves homeless veterans in Port Angeles, WA is a perfect example of a project that could be impacted. Some of this project’s capital development revenue came from the Community Development Block Program (CDBG) and a portion of the ongoing operational revenue comes from project-based vouchers, both of which are subject to cuts.

This example illustrates that helping meet the needs of low-income veterans does not happen in a vacuum where only VA benefits are at work. Meeting the needs of our veterans relies on programs operated by the VA, HUD, the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Labor, and other agencies. Federal programs don’t support our veterans alone. They are often coupled with local and state resources and used to leverage private funds as well.

As our men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan, they will need these programs to not only exist, but to be well-coordinated. A new NLC publication highlights several examples of how local officials are integral to ensuring services for veterans are successfully coordinated among stakeholders. But as the Port Angeles example shows, cities can be most effective when given the tools necessary to meet the need.

The Northeast Central Durham Livability Initiative Populates the Livability Discussion

Over the last couple years, the definition of livability created by the HUD-DOT-EPA’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities has become well known to those of us in the “city business.”  The Partnership’s website outlines the six principles of livability: value communities and neighborhoods; promote equitable, affordable housing; provide more transportation choices; support existing communities; coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment and enhance economic competitiveness.

The site describes what a livable community looks like.  When I close my eyes to picture it based on this description, I see multi-modal transportation systems and a variety of housing types.  I see tree-lined streets and open space.  What I don’t see in my mind’s eye are people in these spaces.  Where are the people?

Actually, they’re hard at work in cities like Durham, N.C., building livable communities from the bottom up, with support from the Partnership, of course.  The Northeast Central Durham (NECD) Livability Initiative is adding value to the livability discussion by placing citizens right where they belong—at the foundation of the community’s livability planning efforts.  In doing so, the initiative is using livability planning as a vehicle with which to establish a more engaged citizenry and a more inclusive community.

According to a presentation about the initiative, livability is all about the citizens, especially in a low-wealth, majority minority community like NECD that has suffered from disinvestment since it was dissected by urban renewal in the 1970s.  With livability planning, “We can restore the lost sense of commitment and belonging; we can counteract the phenomenon of alienation, isolation and loneliness and achieve a sense of identification and participation.”

The initiative has been assembling citizens, local leaders, federal and state agencies, non-profits and students since May 2010 to translate the six livability principles into five citizen-supported livability schemes that fill gaps in the community’s planning efforts.

The community’s citizens are its spokespeople, and according to Wanona Satcher, an urban designer and resident involved in the initiative, they are learning to speak the language needed to make positive changes in their community.  They know what questions to ask and have more knowledge of local opportunities that enable them to engage in hands on efforts to support economic and workforce development, environmental responsibility and a healthy community.

One of the initiative’s most successful accomplishments to date is the creation of the Bull City Urban Market.   The market, which provides the community with access to fresh, healthy and affordable food, also supports job creation, economic opportunity, walkability and community cohesiveness in NECD and throughout the city and county of Durham.

More info: The NECD Livability Initiative was highlighted as part of the NLC City Showcase at the Congress of Cities and Exposition last month in Phoenix.  Learn more about the initiative on CityLife, where the initiative was profiled in August 2011.  And join in the discussion about this and other efforts that support a culture of inclusiveness with the NLC-supported Partnership for Working Toward Inclusive Communities on Facebook.

Building Affordable Housing is Risky Business

Please note: This post is a collaboration between James Brooks and Michael Wallace at NLC. 

For the past two days, The Washington Post has lambasted the Department of Housing and Urban Development and local housing authorities and community development corporations for failing to adequately manage programs that build or rehabilitate affordable housing.

There is a great deal wrong with the conclusions drawn by The Post.  It is useful for us to step back and examine the obvious: HUD and local authorities have an 85% success rate at going into the poorest neighborhoods in the country and providing affordable housing.  These are neighborhoods that private developers don’t dare to tread on their own because of the financial risk involved.  (To see a list of successful HOME projects, please look at the 20th Anniversary award winners at http://hometa.info/index.cfm?do=viewDKAwards.)

In its reporting, The Post brushes off the complete collapse of the housing market that represents a significant and real factor that has caused delays in all efforts to build or rehabilitate housing.  This housing market collapse began in 2006 and continues to languish to this day. This is a major reason why many buildings remain unsold.

Granted, not everything is rosy.  There remains a need for improved capacity of local housing authorities and community development organizations.  But, this is already being addressed by more aggressive reporting requirements in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP).

If these reports are any indication, the local groups are improving their reporting and demonstrating they are effective in delivering housing programs even during a time of significant crisis. This occurs despite local governments continuing to reduce their workforce in significant numbers as a response to the poor economy.

Additionally, HUD has been working to update its obsolete data management systems that are the legacy of the slash and burn tactics by the leadership of HUD operations from 2001 to 2009.  And, as HUD’s own response to the articles points out, they are recapturing money at every instance where fraud is taking place.

While there is no denying some of the lapses in oversight that The Post reports, the characterization that HUD and local housing agencies are complicit and doing nothing is false.  To pick only the most egregious projects and ignore that the vast majority of the projects in the program are wildly successful, smells of cherry-picking for sensationalism. There are very good managers and program officers at every level making significant contributions to the lives of millions of families around the country.

Budget Compromise is Only the Beginning

This week we’ve been receiving a lot of phone calls on the budget compromise and where cities came out. NLC, in coordination with cities and towns across the nation, fought hard to preserve priority investments in cities.

The issues NLC identified as priorities – like Community Development Block Grants – help our cities get back on firm financial footing. While the broader economy may be slowly (very slowly) showing signs of life, cities are still at a low point because the revenues have yet to return. This means that cities continue to face budget shortfalls and difficult decisions that will bring cuts to essential services.

The budget passed by Congress cuts highway funds, first responder grants, and of course, reduces CDBG funding which is used in everything from economic development to low income housing. Cities will certainly feel the pain quite severely.

I wish we could say that this is the end of the budget battles, but it is only just beginning. Before the 2011 compromise was voted on, the debate over fiscal 2012 had begun with House Republicans and the President both announcing their own proposals.

Budget deficits are creating enormous pressure on Washington to reduce spending. But unfortunately, many of the proposals hit right at the innovative programs that invest in our communities and our nation’s future. It is vital that all city officials remain vigilant and continue to educate their federal counterparts to the value of these programs on the local level. Demonstrating the local impact is the best way to highlight the programs that do work and deserve to supported.

To Seek, to Find and Not to Yield

It seems there are no experts at the World Urban Forum. Government ministers, scholars from prestigious universities, and career practitioners of urban development all profess limited knowledge at best. The sentiment is refreshing.

At WUF the days are a quest in search of ideas and solutions. In the awful heat of Rio, rooms are full of eager workshop participants. Presentations go forward with or without air conditioning; mostly without. Adolpho Carrion, the White House urban affairs chief, gamely discussed economic development strategies well into the early evening despite the heat.

Genuinely enough, the Americans have come to learn too. Regardless of rank or prior experience every U.S. speaker whether from HUD or State or local government acknowledged that they did not have all the answers and that they were impressed by the outpouring of information available from one end of the conference venue to the other.

And so the ideas flow. The mayor of Alicante, Spain launched the 100 Cities Initiative. Rather than focusing on best practices, the aim of this effort is to identify “living practices;” those which offer a holistic and forward looking approach. A website will soon be available and a conference will be convened next April.

On a more concrete level the ECOPASS program in Milano, Italy is a congestion pricing scheme to reduce vehicle emissions. Cars and trucks moving within the center city at peak hours pay fees. New public transport systems offer commuters alternatives.

Kyoto, Japan has a city planning process that literally involves every citizen. Neighborhood centers facilitate communication among and between residents. Guidelines for renewal efforts are adopted by consensus.

The Loading Dock in Baltimore, Maryland is a nonprofit that serves as the state clearinghouse for salvaged surplus building materials. Diverted from landfills, the supplies are made available at minimal cost to those who could not normally undertake building repairs or upgrades using traditional retail store supplies. 

People are proud of what they have accomplished, often against terrible odds. They share what they can and absorb the possibilities put forth by others. The joy of community is palpable. Margaret Mead was right.  You should never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. And there is one thing for certain; the world is in need of change.