Regional Forums Begin as HUD and NLC sign Memorandum of Understanding

The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness presents a rare opportunity for local officials to lead the way across the finish line on a community issue once thought intractable.

HUD-Meeting-PhillyA regional forum in Philadelphia supporting the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. (Photo Credit: HUD)

This week in Philadelphia, mayors, city representatives, non-profit leaders, federal and state officials gathered as part of the second regional forum supporting the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness.

The first forum was held two weeks ago in Austin before the start of NLC’s annual conference, the Congress of Cities and Exposition. During the conference, NLC and HUD signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding to develop more regional forums across the country.

As part of the regional forums, local elected officials are not only encouraged to join the challenge, but are provided more information about the available resources in communities and who are the local contacts. In addition, participants share with one another how they have made progress toward ending veteran homelessness.

During this week’s forum, participants heard from representatives about success in Philadelphia and Binghamton, New York. In Binghamton, Mayor Richard David and the city commission pledged their commitment to end veteran homelessness at an event on September 5, 2014.

After making his commitment, Mayor David reached out to local veterans, homelessness advocates, community leaders, service providers and state and federal officials. Collectively, the group identified veterans in need and the available resources in the community.

As of November 12, 21 veterans had been housed and that night, there were no veterans sleeping on the streets of Binghamton.

During the Austin forum, participants heard about specific actions taken by the city in Salt Lake City, New Orleans and Houston.

In Salt Lake City, officials worked with county and state leaders to ensure program administrators using CDBG resources only needed to file one report to meet federal reporting requirements rather than multiple reports for local, county and/or state CDBG dollars.

Additionally, Mayor Becker has engaged local landlords to provide apartments for veterans who have been matched with supportive services and housing resources. Similarly, in New Orleans, Mayor Landrieu worked with local realtors and property management companies to recruit landlords to join city efforts.

Houston’s Special Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives spoke about the importance of creating a “yes” culture. “We have learned that it is not enough to simply have a drop-in center or VASH or SSVF or even coordinated assessment; we must have a “yes” culture,” said Mandy Chapman-Semple. “We operate with the understanding that there is a housing option for every homeless veteran and that it is our duty to offer those choices and deliver.”

Another key element of the regional forums is developing an understanding of what the end of veteran homelessness looks like. While veterans will continue to experience housing instability due to economic, medical or personal circumstances, representatives from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and HUD discussed the end of veteran homelessness meaning that any episode of homelessness is brief, rare and non-recurring.

In Philadelphia, stakeholders believe they will reach this point, called “functional zero,” by fall of 2015. This achievement was first made in Phoenix and Salt Lake City among chronically homeless veterans in the last year.

As part of Congress of Cities, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, joined a panel with the President of Denver’s City Council, Chris Herndon and representatives from The Home Depot Foundation, Community Solutions and the American Legion. The panel discussed how an initial focus on ending homelessness among veterans can better position cities to improve the community for everyone.

Mayor Stanton and Councilman Herndon talked about the opportunity their communities have found to tie together supportive services related to employment, education and healthcare after veterans are stably housed.

Mayor Stanton specifically discussed how his community is now beginning to move the successes they’ve learned around chronically homeless veterans to non-chronically homeless veterans and all chronically homeless individuals and families.

Stanton-SessionPhoenix Mayor Greg Stanton speaking during a panel session at the Congress of Cities in Austin.

With a 33% decline in veteran homelessness since 2010, including a 40% decline among unsheltered homeless veterans, cities across the country are proving that homelessness can end.

In 391 days, we reach the federal goal date when we have aimed to end veteran homelessness. The Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness presents a rare opportunity for local officials to lead the way across the finish line on a community issue once thought intractable. Regional forums developed by NLC and HUD will continue to help city leaders identify specific actions they can take to ensure all veterans have a safe place to call home.

For specific questions and actions you can take in your city, see Three Steps & Five Questions.

NLC and HUD are actively developing future regional forums. If you are interested in learning about or having a regional forum in or near your community, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine at harig-blaine@nlc.org.

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

Earth Day Reflections from an Urbanophile

This is the first blog in a series on why the key to protecting our environment lies in city innovation. 

eath-day-word-cloud

This word cloud captures city leaders’ responses when asked to describe their commitment to sustainability.

I grew up feeling a lot of guilt on Earth Day. When April 22 of every year came around, I felt a huge pile of bricks dropped on my shoulders. How many more natural resources could we waste? How could we ignore what we were doing to our water bodies? How could I have thrown away my leftovers yesterday? For twenty-four hours, the burdens of protecting the natural environment, large and small, fell on me.

Ok, so that’s a bit exaggerated but you get my point. Earth Day often feels like this thing removed from us — a day to celebrate/reflect/commemorate “nature” as though it is a play we are not quite a part of, only a peripheral spectator (or sometimes active villain) in.

The reality, though, is this is far from the truth. The fact is the makeup of our Earth has radically changed. We have a global population steadily on the rise, over half of which currently lives in cities. Think about that — over half. And this rate is only increasing.

Yes—as a society we are responsible for resources wasted, overused and undervalued. But we are also responsible for technological innovations; creativity; and conservation efforts that have helped us make leaps and bounds in conserving natural resources, and preserving and protecting the natural environment — all the while meeting the varied needs of a growing global population.

The fact is, on Earth Day and every other day, cities matter. Cities are where unlikely partners come together to solve a problem that seems impossible. Cities are the places where people’s ideas collide to form better, more effective outcomes than any of us could imagine on our own. And cities provide the key to protecting and enhancing our natural (humans included) environment.

Take, for example, the Wyland Foundation’s National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, an annual competition, which in 2013 had participation from residents in over 1,000 cities across the United States and saved 5.4 million single use water bottles from being used—all in a month’s time. Or the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a friendly competition where small-to-medium sized local governments across the country will be competing to design replicable, scalable energy efficiency programs to win a multi-million dollar prize.

Healthy competitions like these spur creativity and innovation, but they are also capitalizing on the fact that local governments across the country are already innovating and finding creative solutions to jointly meet environmental, economic and social issues. Cities across the country are framing their priorities with a recognition of our present situation and a nod towards the future, allowing them to create comprehensive, forward-looking programs and policies that embrace the natural and human environments as inseparable.

In reflecting on his city’s commitment to sustainability, Mayor Ralph Becker, of Salt Lake City, said: “As we look ahead toward 2015, we envision continued progress to a new kind of urbanism that embraces accessibility, sustainability, diversity and culture. Sustainable Salt Lake – Plan 2015 reflects a broad and ambitious agenda to protect our resources, enhance our assets and establish a path towards greater resiliency and vitality for every aspect of our community.”

I no longer feel burdened when I think of Earth Day because I recall all the exciting activities taking place in cities to find scalable solutions to some of our most pressing problems of today. I know that I have a very real personal responsibility to protect the natural resources around me. However, reading the sustainability missions of cities across the country is an affirmation of what I know to be true; the collective—that is, cities—in fact holds the key to protecting our environment.

Raksha VasudevanAbout the author: Raksha Vasudevan is the Senior Sustainability Associate at NLC.  Through  the Sustainable Cities Institute, her work focuses on sharing innovative solutions to city sustainability challenges, from climate change and resilience to buildings and energy efficiency.  Follow Raksha on Twitter at @RakshaAmbika and the Sustainable Cities Institute at @SustCitiesInst.

60 Minutes Profiles Nashville, while Dallas Convenes Landlords to Bring Veterans Home

Last night on 60 Minutes, the 100,000 Homes Campaign was profiled for their work with cities and other stakeholders across the country to change how we address homelessness. While Nashville was highlighted in the segment, other communities, such as Dallas, are also taking bold steps to bring together the necessary partners to ensure veterans and the chronically homeless have a place to call home.

In Nashville, the city provides the staff and capacity support for the How’s Nashville campaign. The campaign has brought the city together with the area housing authority, private landlords, the VA, and other service providers to prioritize people for housing based on how likely they are to die on the street. To accomplish this goal, housing units are paired with homeless individuals using resources such as Housing Choice Vouchers and HUD-VASH vouchers. The commitment of vouchers has been paired with philanthropic contributions of reduced rent apartments by private landlords. The need for partnerships with private landlords has been recognized as a key to success among stakeholders in Dallas as well.

Recently in Dallas, Assistant City Manager Theresa O’Donnell joined representatives from the Mission Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Team, including officials from the Dallas Housing Authority and the regional VA and HUD offices for a landlord forum. Dozens of landlords attended the event to learn more about community efforts to end veteran homelessness and the need for landlords who are willing to accept veteran-specific (HUD-VASH) housing vouchers.

Assistant City Manager O’Donnell speaks with landlords and property managers at a forum about efforts to bring veterans home.

In April 2013, stakeholders from across the Dallas community came together at a homeless veteran boot-camp facilitated by the 100,000 Homes Campaign. During the 100 days following the boot camp, the team housed 130 homeless veterans. Since the boot-camp, a total of 515 veterans have been housed, with 62 percent being chronically homeless. This progress built upon a 25.9 percent drop in the number of homeless veterans in Dallas between 2011 and 2012. The 2013 Point-in-Time Count showed only 303 homeless veterans. With the 2014 Point-in-Time count recently conducted, the community will soon have more recent data to direct their efforts.

During the initial 100 days, team members worked with NLC and recognized that an obstacle to continued progress was a lack of landlords willing to accept HUD-VASH vouchers. To overcome this obstacle, NLC helped initiate discussions between the city and the team. With the support of team members and the city, NLC drafted a letter, which was signed by Mayor Mike Rawlings and sent to landlords and property managers already working with the city through other housing programs.

To further draw attention to the work and success of the team, Mayor Rawlings also recorded a public service announcement congratulating the team. The mayor used the PSA to urge the public to support the team’s efforts with donations to help with expenses not covered by programs serving veterans. In Nashville, these expenses have also been met by private contributions, but recently the city’s CDBG administrator also announced their commitment of up to $200,000 to help with costs such as rental deposits or utility fees.

With continued focus, both Dallas and Nashville are on pace to join Phoenix and Salt Lake City as a city that have ended chronic veteran homelessness. As each city reviewed their challenges and successes, the need for improving engagement with landlords was identified as a recurring need to help veterans and the chronically homeless find a home more quickly. Combined with an on-going use of data to drive decision-making, Dallas and Nashville are important illustrations of the success that is possible when local collaboration is joined with city leadership

Learn more here about the Mission DFW team.

To learn how you can best support efforts to end veteran homelessness in your city, contact me at harig-blaine@nlc.org.

Elisha_blog
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a 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.

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

This National Tragedy is Ending and Cities Are Leading the Way

This post also appears on the blog of The Home Depot Foundation.

Last week in Seattle, NLC held its annual Congress of Cities and Exposition. More than 3,500 participants gathered to learn about the dynamic ways cities are driving change and finding solutions to the most pressing challenges facing local government. Among these challenges is the issue of homelessness, especially the disgrace of veteran homelessness. At multiple points over the conference, local leaders came together to discuss what is happening in cities across the country and hear from colleagues and others about the progress being made to ensure all veterans have a place to call home.

Of particular note is the recent announcement by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker that his community is on pace to end chronic veteran homelessness in the coming months. Before NLC’s Large Cities Council and during a Veteran Homelessness Roundtable, Mayor Becker discussed the collaborative efforts being made between the city, non-profits, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and others to identify homeless veterans and ensure they receive the services that can best meet their needs.

Fred Wacker, Mayor Becker and Becky Kanis talk about the progress being made in Salt Lake City after the Veteran Homelessness Roundtable at NLC’s Congress of Cities and Exposition.

Fred Wacker, Mayor Becker and Becky Kanis talk about the progress being made in Salt Lake City after the Veteran Homelessness Roundtable at NLC’s Congress of Cities and Exposition.

During the roundtable, participants also heard from Vince Kane of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. Mr. Kane outlined resources available to end veteran homelessness, including HUD-VA Supportive Housing vouchers (HUD-VASH) and the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program (SSVF). In addition, Mr. Kane spoke about a new 25 Cities Initiative that will soon be underway to bring the communities in line with the national goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.

Joining Mr. Kane at the roundtable was Becky Kanis, Director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign. Ms. Kanis spoke about key strategies that communities are using to place homeless veterans in housing. These strategies include knowing homeless veterans by name, utilizing a vulnerability index to prioritize people for housing based on their likelihood of dying on the street, identifying duplicative processes, building community consensus around housing first models and leveraging Medicaid and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) resources in support of veterans and the chronically homeless.

Fred Wacker, Chief Operating Officer of The Home Depot Foundation, was another roundtable speaker. Mr. Wacker discussed the Foundation’s continued commitment to support the construction and rehabilitation of housing for veterans. The Foundation’s on-going efforts were also discussed at the meeting of NLC’s Military Communities Council.

In another conference session regarding successful reintegration of veterans, attendees heard from Tacoma, Washington Mayor Marilyn Strickland. Mayor Strickland spoke about the citys support of collaborative efforts between the local VA office and medical center with local non-profits and the State of Washington’s Department of Veteran Services. City actions included inserting a preference for veterans in a recent round of funding for multifamily housing rehabilitation projects and partnering with county and state officials to encourage the Washington State Housing Finance Commission to collect data on veterans being served by projects receiving allocations of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs).

In addition to these events, conference attendees helped assemble hundreds of personal care kits to be sent to service men and women as a part of NLC’s on-going partnership with Good360. Also, NLC members involved with the Women in Municipal Government constituency group and the Community and Economic Development Policy Committee received an update about on-going work related to veteran homelessness.

With the federal government’s goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015 fast approaching, the leadership of local elected officials is more important than ever. In a growing number of cities, local leaders are joining with non-profits, businesses, philanthropies, faith communities, and state and federal partners to end what was once thought to be an unsolvable problem. The efforts to build collaborative relationships are a lasting way to honor our veterans and strengthen cities.

For more information about how cities are helping ensure all veterans have a place to call home and how NLC can support local efforts, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine at harig-blaine@nlc.org or visit www.nlc.org/veteranhousing.

Elisha_blog

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

The Homeless Veteran Outside NLC

Earlier this week as I approached the steps of our building, I noticed a man sitting against newspaper stands with a white cardboard sign that simply read “homeless vet.” Out of habit, I kept walking.  After less than 10 feet though, I was struck by what I knew was my obligation to honor his sacrifice by making sure he got the help he needed.

Rob was an infantryman in the Army. Served in Afghanistan. Honorably discharged five months ago. He came home to a changed marriage that quickly ended in divorce and resulted in him losing his house. His savings kept him off the street for a few months, but eventually that money ran out. Now he’s here in our nation’s capital being briskly walked by and getting the occasional dollar and change from someone who had just bought a coffee at the Starbucks he sat across from.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan speaks with Kelly Caffarelli, President of The Home Depot Foundation and Elisha Harig-Blaine of the National League of Cities at the launch of the Never Another Homeless Veteran campaign.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan speaks with Kelly Caffarelli, President of The Home Depot Foundation and Elisha Harig-Blaine of the National League of Cities at the launch of the Never Another Homeless Veteran campaign.

Fortunately, Washington, D.C.  is one of the many cities that today have HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Support Housing) vouchers. There are also several non-profits administering the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). Since Rob is not “chronically” homeless, it is likely that with a relatively small amount of assistance and perhaps some job training, he could quickly be self-sufficient once again. This is the exact purpose of the SSVF program. Fortunately, with one phone call Rob was connected with Friendship Place, a service provider who collaborates with other stakeholders in the community to ensure veterans like Rob receive assistance from the right programs for their needs.

Today, many communities are stepping forward to ensure the resources in their city are being directed to those who need them most. One such city is Salt Lake City. Recently, Mayor Ralph Becker proclaimed November to be Veterans Housing Month. In the coming weeks, it is anticipated that Salt Lake City could become the first city to house all of their chronically homeless veterans.

Not to be outdone though, the City of Phoenix will hold a press conference on Veterans Day to discuss how they have reduced chronic veteran homelessness by 62 percent in just two years. Mayor Greg Stanton and other community leaders will outline how the city will house the remaining 56 unsheltered veterans in the coming weeks.

These cities illustrate what is possible when political leadership and community collaboration combine to provide the proper level of resources and work to implement data-driven strategies.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan noted the examples of Phoenix and Salt Lake City during his remarks at the National Alliance to End Homelessness – Never Another Homeless Veteran event earlier this week. NLC is a proud partner of the Never Another Homeless Veteran campaign and urges everyone to sign the statement committing to ending veteran homelessness today. Leadership committee members of the campaign include President George H.W. Bush, former Secretaries of State James A. Baker and Colin Powell, former Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, The Home Depot Foundation, and many more.

At our Congress of Cities and Exposition in Seattle next week, Mayor Becker and Mayor Stanton will join Vince Kane, Director of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, and Becky Kanis, Campaign Director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign to discuss how more cities can join Salt Lake and Phoenix in their race to getting to zero chronically homeless veterans.

In an era of tight budgets and partisan politics, providing an unprecedented level of resources for our veterans has received broad bipartisan support. But this support must be met with decisive actions on the ground. Local leaders can be the difference between success and failure. Veterans Day parades are nice, but making sure all veterans and their families have a place to call home is a more lasting way of showing our appreciation for their commitment and sacrifice.

Elisha_blog

About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is a Senior 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.

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

Lessons Learned from Richmond, Virginia to Improve the Lives of Veterans Everywhere

In September 2012, in conjunction with the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, NLC sponsored an event that highlighted the work that the City of Richmond, VA is doing to alleviate poverty. As part of the “Cities Promote Opportunity” series, Mayor Dwight C. Jones, Richmond, spoke about the importance of city leadership and service coordination in helping the city move toward their goal of reducing poverty.

This post was written by Mayor Dwight Jones and was originally posted by the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

The need for city leadership and service coordination is central to ensuring our cities provide veterans with the welcome home they deserve. Cities of all sizes are showing the impact that local leadership can have. From larger cities such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and the District of Columbia, to more moderately sized cities such as Eugene, OR and Colorado Springs, CO and even smaller communities such as Glastonbury, CT and Port Angeles, WA, local leadership consistently makes the difference. To learn more about what you can do to lead efforts in your city to improve service coordination and help welcome home veterans, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine, Senior Associate, Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at harig-blaine@nlc.org.

Restructuring Municipal Budgets to Fight Poverty

In Richmond, Virginia, we are witnessing a troubling trend. Over one in four residents live in poverty, and many more live just above the poverty line or are at risk of falling into poverty. In response to this community crisis, I appointed an Anti-Poverty Commission to review this problem and offer recommendations.

What they came back with was inspiring. We found that we can make a measurable impact if we focus our anti-poverty strategies on upgrading our workers’ skills, expanding employment opportunities, boosting academic achievement, and enhancing public housing. And we know that we can afford many of these initiatives, even in a time of fiscal stress, by leveraging outside funding, improving coordination, refocusing existing programs, and finding savings that reduce our residents’ cost of living.

The Commission made clear that we can significantly reduce poverty—for example, permanently moving 5,000 adults into full-time employment could cut Richmond’s poverty rate by over 20 percent. To achieve tangible progress, the Commission established five major recommendations:

• Target workforce development strategies toward low-skilled and long-term unemployed and underemployed residents, which can be integrated with economic development strategies.

• Recruit or develop one or more major employers capable of creating hundreds of jobs accessible to underemployed Richmond residents.

• Create a regional transit system to make thousands more jobs accessible to metropolitan Richmond residents through effective public transportation that links the regional economy together.

• Develop an effective educational pipeline that prepares Richmond Public Schools graduates for either college or the workforce.

• Redevelop much of the city’s public housing stock without involuntarily displacing residents, with the aim of improving the physical and social environment of public housing residents.

These recommendations will require substantial investments to implement, but the key is to do more with what we have. We believe that, if we can establish a focused strategy to guide the investment of these dollars, we can maximize the use of existing local, state, and federal funds to fight poverty more effectively.

With this approach, we prepared our budget with an eye toward the things we could and would do to help mitigate poverty in our city, while also upholding our central responsibility to provide core municipal services.

One area ripe for reform was the Richmond water system. We are proposing to cut the base rate for these services to make them more affordable for our residents. We are also migrating to an approach that will help with our water conservation efforts. Additionally, we are establishing a new assistance program that will help pay water and wastewater bills for qualified low-income households.

In transportation, we are working to develop a pilot program for van pooling, which will help transport our residents to jobs and address issues of inadequate transportation. Other efforts include augmenting funding to support health resource centers in our public housing complexes, as well as continuing on our trajectory to transform public housing models and deconcentrate poverty.

While we are doing what we can within the confines of our budget, the Anti-Poverty Commission rightly noted that the city government has limited resources and capacity. This means that collaboration will be essential in our fight against poverty.

One example of this kind of collaboration is our new Adolescent Transition Initiative. Working together
with our school system and other community agencies, our goal is to launch a major community effort to strengthen support systems and opportunities for children ages 11-15 who are making the critical transition from middle childhood to the high school years. We want to reduce the number of children who are falling behind socially and academically. This initiative will connect teenagers to real-world experiences through extracurricular activities and mentoring relationships with trusted adults.

Another example is in the area of workforce development. We are preparing to fund a new pilot project through our existing Workforce Pipeline program. Through this pilot, we will combine the efforts of our workforce development program and the state Virginia Initiative for Employment, not Welfare (VIEW) job program, which serves Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients. Our new, combined program will provide training for job readiness, focusing on jobs with sufficiently high wages to lift people out of poverty and promote economic stability.

These initiatives are just a precursor to programs we hope to invest in more heavily going forward. We intend to stay focused and to be held accountable to our citizens through the creation of a permanent Citizens Advisory Commission on Poverty Policy. By working together and being smart about finances, we can begin to move our city towards the path of economic prosperity.

Cities Make Progress Toward Ending Veteran Homelessness; More Cities Join the Effort

Last week in Los Angeles, the 100,000 Homes Campaign sponsored the latest Veteran’s Boot Camp that brought together stakeholders from communities in Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and California. The event comes in the wake of progress being reported by cities who participated in an earlier boot camp held in Tampa, Florida in April.

This latest “Veteran’s Boot Camp” included representatives from Portland, OR; Tucson, AZ; Seattle/King County; and California communities including Riverside; San Francisco; San Bernardino; Orange County; and Sonoma County. One of the first steps these communities took was to assess the number of veterans they need to place in housing to end veteran homelessness by December 2015. This process included reviewing data from multiple sources. The participants worked together to agree upon an estimate since none of the sources provide identical figures.

Recognizing the challenges that come from starting with imperfect data, Melanie Zamora from The Road Home in Salt Lake City, Utah spoke at the Boot Camp about what their community has done. “We weren’t willing to let our inability to reconcile our data get in the way of our work to identify those in need and prioritize them for services,” said Ms. Zamora. To overcome this, the partners in Salt Lake City began regular meetings to identify the clients in need, come to agreement about what clients should be prioritized, and determine what resources were available in the community to meet the clients’ needs.

After figuring out how to work with imperfect data, identifying and knowing their homeless population by name, and establishing regular meetings, 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, 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 by the end of 2015.

In April, communities in Texas and Florida came together to develop action plans for ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.  Many of the communities that participated in the first Veteran’s Boot Camp in Tampa have made progress, including:

  • In Houston/Harris County, TX, over 100 people have housing vouchers in-hand and are actively searching for housing. They also had a successful registry event to get to know homeless individuals by name, and are working to combine data lists to clarify numbers across the community.
  • In Dallas/Fort Worth, TX, the Dallas Housing Authority made 47 HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers available to veterans. In addition, the team will hold a media event on June 20 to kick-off a campaign to raise $100,000.
  • In the central Texas region around Austin and Waco, stakeholders are working to implement a coordinated assessment and create a better process between the VA and housing providers. The VA is working to decrease length of time it takes for veterans to get into housing using HUD-VASH vouchers.
  • In Lee County, Florida, 20 veterans have been housed, and five of those housed have increased their income. In addition, the Public Housing Authority has formed a committee to grow the number of landlords they are working with.
  • In Sarasota/Manatee, Florida, the team has added seven new landlords to their list for a total of 25 participating landlords. The team is also working with VetCorp to reach the goal of ending homelessness.
  • In Tampa, Florida, they are streamlining their eligibility screening process for various programs by stationing an outreach person at the local health clinic. In addition, the Housing Authority has also pre-inspected 30 units to streamline the lease-up and move-in process.

Overall, the 100,000 Homes Campaign has a goal of housing 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless, and in the last month the campaign formally crossed the halfway point. To date, teams in 196 communities have successfully housed 51,438 of the most vulnerable homeless, including 15,679 veterans.

In cities across the country, progress is being made by stakeholders who have come together to end the national tragedy of veteran homelessness. Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor Richard Berry has called this work “the smart way to do the right thing.” Local leaders can use their platform to raise the profile of this work in their community, forge partnerships with other municipalities and levels of government to better leverage resources, help bring missing stakeholders to the table, and more. In many cities, the involvement of local leaders makes the difference between some success and great success. Ending homelessness among veterans is an issue that should unite everyone. Our veterans deserve no less.

To learn how NLC can support work in your community to end veteran homelessness, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine, NLC’s Senior Housing Associate at harig-blaine@nlc.org.

State of the Cities 2013: Investing in Education Today for a Better Tomorrow

This is the fourth post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

In his 14th State of the City Address delivered at a local high school on Columbus, Ohio’s south side, Mayor Michael B. Coleman stood before fellow city leaders, school district officials, nonprofit and business leaders and residents, passionately calling for the whole community to unite in the struggle for quality education.  “When our kids graduate from high school, they should be able to do one of four things: get a good job, go to college, join the military or start a business,” said Mayor Coleman.  “Too many of our young people are not prepared to do any of the above.”

In the very school building where the mayor gave his Address, more than a quarter of enrolled students struggle with disabilities, more than 91 percent are economically disadvantaged, and less than 56 percent graduate after four years.  For these youth, and others around the country, tough family situations, neighborhood violence and bullying in the classrooms compound the effects of strained school budgets and inadequate or even failing educational policies and practices.

These challenges not only take on moral implications, insists Mayor Coleman, but also wide-ranging consequences for the growth and competiveness of the city.  In particular, increasing the number of residents that graduate from high school and go on to attain a postsecondary credential – whether it is a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, apprenticeship, or certificate – is critical to the success of any local economy.  By one estimate, more than six in 10 jobs will require at least some postsecondary education by 2018.

“We can find a way for every kid in Columbus,” said the mayor.  “But we must first stack hands and become the best city in the nation for every child to receive a quality education.”

Like Mayor Coleman, mayors around the country are stacking hands with community partners to restructure the education system to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.  Although mayoral influence on education can take many shapes depending on the local context, our analysis of mayors’ State of the City Addresses finds that local leaders are seeking greater coherence in the school system by promoting multi-sector partnerships and leveraging local resources to spur new innovations as a means to increase student achievement.

Building and Sustaining Partnerships

In Columbus, Ohio partnerships have been central to “finding a way for every child.”  The Columbus Education Commission, an ambitious, city-led, cross-sector effort, is working to develop a pathway for change by executing extensive community outreach to identify and outline the key roles for the school district, city government, the private sector and civic leadership, among others.  Formal partnerships or governance structures that incorporate city leadership are essential to developing education systems that truly respond to the entire needs of the community.  They break down silos, spread accountability, and leverage important community assets to work towards common goals.

In Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight Jones is working cooperatively with the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools to resolve current funding issues and strengthen the future of the community’s children.  In his State of the City Address, Mayor Jones touted the Schools’ Accountability and Efficiency Review Task Force.  This group is made up of individuals with backgrounds in municipal and state finance and is tasked with identifying solutions to an immediate budget shortfall, and assessing long-term opportunities to help Richmond schools begin to establish a strong fiscal foundation for the future.

Numerous partnerships help Salt Lake City, Utah support and strengthen educational opportunities for children and youth.  Mentioned in Mayor Ralph Becker’s Address, the Capital City Education Plan was developed by the city, the Salt Lake City School District and the University of Utah, with input from parents, non-profits and the business community.  The initiative has pioneered a “cultivation model” that centers around supporting the family and engaging students from birth to career in lifelong learning.  “We’ve worked diligently for five years to convene partners and play an integral role to improve educational opportunities and outcomes in Salt Lake City,” said Mayor Becker.

Innovating in Education

As education continues to gain prominence as a key driver of economic growth, municipal leaders have taken on both formal and informal roles to support comprehensive reforms and new innovations.  City leaders are spreading “cradle to career” strategies, more systematically interconnecting workforce development and education, and leveraging local resources to support critical educational functions, among many other efforts.

For example, in Mayor Tom Menino’s State of the City Address, he spoke of education reforms in Boston, Mass. that have led to turnaround schools, in-district charter schools, overhauled teacher evaluations, and new classroom resources.  In addition, as part of Mayor Menino’s comprehensive efforts to improve access to quality education, the city has established universal, voluntary Pre-K operated by Boston Public Schools and a robust system of high-quality, community-based care available for the majority of preschool-aged children.

In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer is building a workforce with the technical skills to thrive in the 21st century by linking education and workforce training.   “We spot training opportunities, and work with our educational partners to capitalize on them,” said Mayor Fischer.   “That’s why we developed computer-coding and sales training programs to quickly respond to market needs in the past six months.”

To the east, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, of Baltimore, Md., worked with the City Council to approve an historic increase in new funding for school renovation – the single largest local source of school renovation funding ever approved in the city’s modern history.  In addition, the Mayor and the City Council have implemented a dedicated local funding stream for continued school renovation.

Acting with Urgency

Evidenced by this year’s State of the City Addresses, it’s clear that cities are not standing on the sideline when it comes to education.  To be attractive to businesses and families alike, city leaders recognize that more residents must obtain the skills required for the best-paying and fastest-growing jobs.  “Great cities are smart, innovative and entrepreneurial,” notes Mayor Ralph Becker.  “It takes brainpower to achieve success as a thriving, livable city.”

The urgency to build and expand this “brainpower” has cultivated new innovations that are already having an impact in communities.  For mayors, the stakes are simply too high not to take on this challenge.  As Mayor Tom Menino put it, “our most important collection of talent lies in our young people.  So our first task is improving public education in our city.”