We Must Increase the Role We Play in Ending Homelessness

On any given night, there are more than 600,000 homeless Ameri­cans, a large percentage of whom are living on the streets or some other place not meant for human habitation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that more than 1.5 million Americans – or one out of every 200 – have experienced homelessness. The single-night count, which is based upon the Federal defini­tion of homelessness, does not include the numerous homeless that would meet a less restrictive definition because they are doubled up, surfing between friends and family, or have some other form of housing instability.

preston prince NAHRO public housing authorities end homelesnessUnfortunately, it is not enough for us to do the vitally important daily work that we do at our organizations to combat homelessness. We must also debunk the stereotypes that have sprung up about it. A fallacy that I have heard many times throughout my career is that “people choose to be homeless.” I vehemently dis­agree. People do not want to be homeless. Period. Furthermore, it is both morally compelling and fiscally rewarding to end the epidemic of homelessness.

A second fallacy that I hear repeatedly is that public housing authorities (PHAs) are rigid and inflex­ible and are choosing to not participate in a community’s efforts to eradicate homelessness. Based upon my travels and hearing firsthand the programs and policies that PHAs have in place to end homelessness, I must disagree. In fact, according to HUD’s 2014 Final Report titled Study of PHAs’ Efforts to Serve People Experiencing Homeless­ness, “about a quarter (24 percent) of all PHAs were attempting to serve people experiencing homelessness.” I believe when taking into consideration all of the activities undertaken by PHAs, it is a much more substantial number than 24 percent.

Two great resources exist to provide assistance to PHAs to expand what they are doing to end homelessness. First, the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) has the PHAs Toolkit, “[a] technical assistance resource for Public Housing Agencies and their partners who want to end homeless­ness.” The second is the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness’s (USICH) PHA Guidebook to Ending Homelessness, which “provides guidance and best practices PHAs can use to strengthen their collaborative efforts.”

Another way in which to fight home­lessness is by partnering with other orga­nizations. This year, NAHRO is building upon its partnership with USICH. At the Summer Conference in Tampa, USICH Executive Director Laura Green Zeilinger will keynote a plenary session. And USICH Policy Director Richard Cho will moderate a breakout session highlighting innovative and entrepreneurial work led by PHAs. The goal is to hold a jointly sponsored convening by the end of 2014 that will focus on policy and best practices to further grow the role that PHAs have in their communities.

Other stakeholders are also taking coordinated action against homelessness. Veteran Affairs and HUD launched a 25 Cities Initiative to end Veteran homeless by 2015 and chronic homelessness by 2016. Recently, the White House issued a national challenge to mayors to end Veteran homelessness by 2015 – 77 mayors have already signed on. In these cities, I am certain you will find local PHAs working closely with local community development agencies aligning resources to meet these two challenges. Much has been done. But, so much more is still to be done. We, NAHRO members, must step up to do more – for while we are pleased with our efforts to date, we will not be satisfied until we help the homeless find the homes they so rightly deserve.

NAHRO Reads: In his book Re­bound: An Inspiring Story that Explores the Mystery of the Human Spirit, Karl Johnson writes about moving into his apartment after being homeless. He writes, “When I was at the lowest of the low, I did not believe I had worth. I know now that I am worthy – and with this worth, I have a responsibility to give back and live the life I was meant to live.” We in the housing and community development industry have a responsibility to help many more homeless live the lives they were meant to live.

(Editor's Note: This item originally appeared in the June 15, 2014 issue of the NAHRO Monitor.)