December 21 is marked as Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day. More than 100 communities across 39 states will hold memorial services and provide personal remembrances for those that have been lost.
On a bitterly cold winter morning in Boston nearly 15 years ago, I arrived at work to start my day doing outreach to women and men living on the city’s streets. As I approached the office, I saw someone huddled under a blanket leaning against the front door. After trying to wake them, I realized the man had died from exposure.
I did not recognize the man and he had few belongings. He died alone and nameless.
Tragically, this is an all too common occurrence. While there are no comprehensive data collected on the number of homeless men and women who die on our streets each year, in 2016 an estimated 2,675 people are reported to have died so far.
In an effort to honor the humanity of these individuals and draw attention to the deadly reality of homelessness, December 21 – the first day of winter and the longest night of the year – is marked as Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day.
Tonight, in collaboration with the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 112 communities across 39 states will hold memorial services where the names of those known are read and attendees provide personal remembrances.
These events offer cities an opportunity to reflect on the collective and individual tragedies, while recommitting to the necessary work of ensuring all people have a safe place to call home. Specifically, these events offer cities the chance to earnestly review what is happening in their response systems to ensure that homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring.
Here in the nation’s capital, less than three blocks from NLC’s office, there is an example of how local leaders can come together to implement known best practices for housing the homeless.
Developed by Community Solutions, an internationally recognized provider of technical assistance on homelessness, the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence is a 124-unit complex with 60 units of permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless veterans, 17 units for tenants referred by the District’s Department of Behavioral Health, and 47 apartments for low-income residents making 60 percent or less of the area median income.
Access to permanent supportive housing is at the core of a community’s Housing First response to homelessness and the Conway Residences equally illustrates the importance of such housing and the challenges to affordable housing development.
During the 2016 Point in Time count of the District’s homeless population, 579 veterans were identified. Thanks to Community Solutions’ commitment to working with community stakeholders such as the local medical center of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development, units made available by the development have been prioritized for veterans who have been assessed for housing and services in a coordinated manner as part of The Way Home campaign.
The Conway Residences come as the District builds on progress that has housed 505 veterans between January and August 2016. Community partners estimate that 284 veterans still need to be housed to reach the goal of ending veteran homelessness.
Despite the critical need for units like those offered by the Conway Residences, the development’s eight-year timeline shows there are substantial areas in need of improvement to build and preserve the necessary amount of housing.
Thanks to the dedicated support of philanthropic partners such as The Home Depot Foundation and the William S. Abell Foundation, the Conway Residences continued to make progress as Community Solutions held numerous rounds of negotiations with a variety of funding entities and municipal departments.
The number of stakeholders with their own processes and timelines included: the Board of Zoning Adjustment, Department of Behavioral Health, Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Department of General Services, Department of Housing and Community Development, District Department of Transportation, District of Columbia Housing Authority, District of Columbia’s Housing Finance Agency, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, DC Council, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Streamlining funding structures and coordinating municipal processes related to the development of affordable housing is a central role that cities can plan to support efforts to end homelessness. In cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles, state, county, and city officials have established an “affordable housing pipeline” to address these complexities and expedite the overall process.
Beyond streamlining, a persistent challenge for developers of affordable housing is a lack of resources. In the ongoing climate of dwindling federal resources, cities are increasingly turning to investments in affordable housing trust funds and rental subsidy programs resourced with local dollars.
In recognition of this need, in October, the District’s Mayor, Muriel Bowser, announced a $106 million commitment to produce or preserve more than 1,200 affordable housing units across the city.
With thousands of people dying annually on city streets, it may be difficult to not see homelessness as an intractable problem that will always plague cities.
But this is not the case.
A growing number of communities are achieving a functional end to veteran homelessness as defined by a series of criteria and benchmarks established by federal partners as part of the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. Since 2010, veteran homelessness nationwide has declined 47 percent.
In addition, since 2010, cities report a reduction in chronic homelessness by 27 percent. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, chronic homelessness declined by 7 percent overall and in smaller communities the decline was 13 percent.
By committing to work with community stakeholders through efforts such as the Mayors Challenge, city leaders can turn the somber occasion of this year’s Homeless Persons’ Remembrance Day into lasting and meaningful action that can improve the lives of the most vulnerable among us.
To learn more about what you can do in your city with the National League of Cities and our national partners through efforts like the Mayors Challenge, visit www.nlc.org/mayorschallenge.
About the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.