My Vision for Preventing and Ending Homelessness: A Message From USICH Executive Director Jeff Olivet
When I joined the movement to prevent and end homelessness in 1994, the general perception was that homelessness was new, that it was colorblind, and that we would work ourselves out of a job in a short time. More than 25 years later, the urgency of our work has never been greater. At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of Americans are living on the streets or in shelters.
It is in this context that I step into the role of executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) with humility and resolve.
I am deeply grateful to the people who have entrusted me with this job: President Biden, Secretary Fudge, who chairs USICH; Secretary McDonough, our vice chair; all of the council members; and our amazing staff. I am also grateful to my predecessor, Anthony Love. I first met Anthony in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in late 2005, when he was leading the Houston Coalition for the Homeless. His leadership then as now was serious, calm, and thoughtful in times of crisis. Over the last year, Anthony brought stability to USICH during a time of transition, and he positioned the agency well for the work ahead.
The pandemic has challenged our nation’s ability to ensure every person has a safe, affordable home, and it has further exposed deep racial inequities in housing, health, and economic opportunity. At the same time, the unprecedented resources that the Biden administration and Congress have made available to communities presents an extraordinary opportunity to address homelessness in new and creative ways.
I believe that ending homelessness requires all of us—Republicans and Democrats, public and private sectors, faith and business communities, mayors and city/county administrators, nonprofit service providers and advocates, people from urban, suburban, rural, and Tribal areas; and, most importantly, those who are most proximate to the issue: people who have themselves experienced the tragedies of homelessness.
Ending homelessness also requires us to do some soul searching. How do we take care of one another? What kind of society do we want to build together?
It is important to acknowledge the significant progress we have made together in recent years. Over the last decade:
- We cut Veteran homelessness in half through concentrated efforts, strong collaboration, and dedicated funding.
- We increased our focus on and awareness of youth homelessness—the majority of whom identify as people of color and/or LGBTQ+.
- We have come to understand more clearly the connections between homelessness and structural racism, along with the dramatic disparities in who experiences homelessness.
This progress didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by accident. Instead, these gains are the result of public policies that prioritized housing, services, data, and equity. While we have begun laying the groundwork for a new approach, we have a long way to go.
To end homelessness for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are without a home even as I write these words, and to prevent homelessness for the millions more who are at imminent risk of homelessness, I believe that we must:
Reframe Homelessness as a Public Health Crisis
Tens of thousands of Americans died last year while experiencing homelessness. By some estimates, this number could be as high as 46,500. This is unconscionable. Too often, public officials and the general public view homelessness as an intractable social problem that will always be with us. I refuse to believe that homelessness is inevitable. I refuse to believe that we’re unable to end it. We must bring the same urgency, focus, creativity, and resources that we would to any other public health emergency—a tornado, a hurricane, or a pandemic.
Amplify the Voice of People Who Have Experienced Homelessness
For too long, we haven’t had the right people at the right tables. For too long, people who have never experienced homelessness, including myself, have been in positions to make policy decisions “on behalf of” rather than “in partnership with” people who best understand the problem. We need to create new, meaningful opportunities for people who have been homeless to design policies and programs, devise solutions, and allocate budgets at all levels of government. And they should be paid for their expertise—not just with a gift card or a slice of pizza. We must move beyond tokenism to real power-sharing.
Eliminate Racial Disparities
The racial inequities we see in homelessness didn’t happen overnight. They are the result of past and present laws and policies that have made it harder for some to rent or own a home. People of color, especially Black and Native people, are dramatically more likely than their white counterparts to experience homelessness—even when controlling for poverty. This doesn’t mean no white people experience homelessness or that structural racism is the only factor driving homelessness. But it does mean that homelessness is not colorblind, and unless we are willing to acknowledge the facts, engage in courageous conversations about race and racism, and work together to create equitable solutions, we will never end homelessness.
Scale Effective Housing and Supportive Services
Homelessness is the failure of systems—not individuals. Yet we have attempted to size the problem to the available resources instead of scaling the resources to the size of the problem. The result is a system that ends homelessness very effectively one person at a time but never addresses the systemic failures or scales effective programs to the degree necessary to solve the problem. Over the past two decades, research on effective models—including Housing First, Critical Time Intervention, trauma-informed care, medical respite, and peer-driven services—has begun to build an evidence base for what works. We know that when people have access to stable housing along with the treatment and services they need and want, homelessness can become a thing of the past. Now we must scale these approaches to meet the actual need. Such scaling will require a greater focus on real-time, accurate data to understand the scope, dynamics, and trends we are facing.
Go Upstream to Prevent Homelessness
While we have developed strong approaches to end homelessness, we have done little to keep people from slipping through the cracks and becoming homeless in the first place. As a result, many argue that what we are doing must not be working since homelessness still exists. The problem is that we have not turned off the faucet. We must stop the flow of people into homelessness. This work will require collaboration at all levels of government between multiple systems: housing, health care, criminal justice, child welfare, education, domestic violence, immigration, labor, and others. We must work together across the federal government, with state and local officials, and with private philanthropy to create systems and funding streams that better identify people at risk of homelessness and intervene earlier to keep them from losing their homes.
This is an ambitious vision. I believe we can achieve it.
Over the coming weeks and months, USICH will work with staff across the federal government—including Cabinet members and White House leaders—to create a federal strategic plan to guide the work ahead. Our plan will be based on what our team heard over the last few months through a stakeholder engagement process that included more than 500 people with lived experience and close to 1,000 groups and individuals from across the country. We have heard you, and your wisdom will shape the plan.
In the meantime, I ask you to stay engaged. This work is difficult. People’s lives are at stake. The work of ending homelessness is always challenging, and you are being asked to do this work in the context of a global pandemic, economic upheaval, and political division. Even so, we must come together. We must redouble our efforts. We must keep going until every person in the United States has a safe, stable, and affordable home.
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