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.

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/.