Responding to the Crisis of Homelessness

by Laura Green Zeilinger, USICH Executive Director

We write and talk a lot about homelessness as a social problem and what we know about the solutions.  We are compelled to take on this very complex problem because we see the people who are affected.  In a recently released 90 second video, Rethink Homelessness helped millions of viewers look past the label of "homeless" and see people.

At an individual level, the turmoil that comes from not having a safe place that is home is a crisis.  It is a crisis that without adequate resolution gets worse. Although  there are programs that provide housing and services for people, we will never have an adequate response that is at the pace and scale needed as long as it depends on people in crisis being required to navigate multiple programs in an attempt to get their needs met.  Responding in a person-centered way to homelessness requires that programs are operating as a system.  Making this shift is not simple, but it is being done in more and more communities throughout the country, and a systems approach is essential to achieving an end to homelessness.

Ending homelessness means providing a pathway to stable and permanent housing now for people who are experiencing homelessness. It also means changing the way we respond when people have a housing crisis so that we can prevent homelessness whenever possible or otherwise ensure that homelessness is a rare, brief, and nonrecurring experience.   We do this by helping individuals and families keep or quickly transition back to permanent housing with access to needed services.  This response is what in Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness we call the “homeless crisis response system.” It is the overall system where coordinated assessment, homeless programs, and mainstream programs logically fit together to provide a meaningful solution for people.

It is the overall system where coordinated assessment, homeless programs, and mainstream programs logically fit together to provide a meaningful solution for people.

With true coordination and collaboration, homeless providers and mainstream systems can work together to create a seamless response that does not expect people to navigate multiple programs in an effort to get their needs met. Instead, communities can create a system that:

  • is easily accessible and known throughout the community
  • is equipped to reach out to people as necessary
  • assesses the needs of all members of a household
  • provides service and support options based on what people want and need
  • connects people with shelter or housing and service supports without barriers to entry

Building this system requires that all stakeholders in a community work together. You are a part of the system. Understand your value. Understand where you or your program fits in, where your seat at the table is, and invite others whose involvement you need. System-level transformation is not easy nor will it happen overnight; but it can happen and is happening in communities across the country. Together you will build the crisis response system necessary for achieving an end to homelessness in your community.