By Elisha Harig-Blaine/CitiesSpeak.org
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 Harig-Blaine is a Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at the National League of Cities. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.