At Mayors’ Conference, Leaders Focus on Ending Homelessness

As we often say, if we are going to reach our goals nationally, we must act locally.  The opportunity to have conversations with mayors from cities throughout the country last week, at the US Conference of Mayors 82nd Annual Winter Meeting, was an inspiring reminder of the tremendous leadership behind local efforts and actions to end homelessness.  Having worked for a mayor, I have huge appreciation for the scores of issues that demand mayors’ attention all day, every day.  Last week, mayors were talking about homelessness. They raised the issue not just in conversations with USICH, but in the Community Development and Housing Committee with HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, in the Task Force on Veterans with VA Assistant Secretary Tommy Sowers, and of course at the Hunger and Homelessness Task Force meeting.

The Hunger and Homeless Task Force not only plays an important role in informing the US Conference of Mayors’ (USCM) priorities on homelessness, but it is also a place where mayors raise local challenges and share innovative solutions. As evidenced by the robust dialogue and strategizing that happened during the meeting, it was clear that many mayors see themselves as on the “front lines” in efforts to end homelessness across this country.

In my work at the Council, I continue to hear from communities that one of the most important factors to driving progress is a strong and visible mayor who is willing to champion the issue of ending homelessness by setting concrete goals and driving accountability for results. Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City and Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix are great examples of the importance of leadership, collaboration, and in their case, some friendly competition, to enable cities to reach important milestones, such as ending chronic homelessness among Veterans. They are demonstrating what many of us who do this work on a daily basis believe:  it is possible to end homelessness. And if we can end homelessness for one segment of the population, we can end homelessness for everyone.

Given the high human and fiscal cost of letting homelessness persist, if we know we can solve it, we must. I am not saying that it is simple – but that we can do it. Implementation of the solutions requires coordination across government entities that are too often siloed: housing, healthcare, VA Medical Centers, workforce programs and justice systems. Mayors, like no others, can bring these entities together, and when mayors are in it, they inspire philanthropy, business, and their constituents to be involved. Mayors bring vision, leadership, and relentless attention and accountability to the challenge of preventing and ending homelessness. They bring teams together and work with "the fierce urgency of now" to get their neighbors off the street, out of crumbling shelters and into permanent housing. 

The progress that we are making across the country demonstrates that when we invest strategically in solutions and work together, homelessness is a problem we can solve.  We see it in the major milestones and in the data, but we must keep at the center of our minds that this is about individual people. It is about the woman I met, who was sleeping under a bridge, facing abuse and humiliation, and sick with HIV/AIDS, who moved into housing.  In her own apartment she was safe, able to get health care and support in dealing with trauma. 

Be sure leaders in your community have the opportunity to connect personally on this issue. It is through the personal understanding that we realize that although homelessness at the macro level of aggregate data can seem intractable, we are really talking about individual people.  People for whom there is housing solution.

We have the capacity to achieve the goals of Opening Doors. We know what works. Increased and continued strategic investments in evidence-informed practices, such as rapid re-housing and Housing First, are essential to preventing and ending homelessness for all populations. The time and urgency is now for Mayors to serve as champions and leaders in cities across the country.