True Stories

Ending Homelessness Through Public Policy: Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness

By | Aug 10, 2010

Nan Roman, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness

When Nan Roman, President and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), first got involved with poverty studies, homelessness did not really exist.

She was fresh out of college and had been drawn to work at the Institute for Poverty Studies because their focus was so closely related to the anthropology she had studied in school where she focused on improving communities and “what makes them tick.” During her work at the Institute for Poverty Studies, they focused a lot on the concept of “residential displacement.”

“We were saying, ‘if we keep tearing down all this affordable housing and converting apartments into condos and co-ops, there won’t be enough housing for low-income people,’” she said. “People [in Washington, DC] basically said that was just nonsense, that widespread homelessness would never be accepted in the U.S.”

That was when her interest in housing and urban issues truly began. She had not started her career wanting to do something about homelessness, but as she put it, “homelessness is the extreme that proves the rule of the importance of housing.”

Epiphany

Though she now works at the policy level, that was not always the case. When homelessness was just starting to emerge as a national issue, she was working at the local level with a community organization in Washington, DC. A man in need came to see her.

He was in bad shape. Not only was he bordering on homelessness, but he was struggling with alcoholism and the lasting effects of a traumatic brain injury that had made him unable to work. One of his eyes was gone, lost in a fight long ago. He was a good person, but his circumstances made him especially prone to anger.

One day he came to see Roman, having just injured his remaining eye. Though she was not a social worker, Roman believed that she could help him. However, she quickly learned that merely being a good person with good intentions was not enough to effectively help a fellow human being in need.

“I was trying to help him, but I wasn’t really able to. It was kind of an epiphany for me that if I was going to work directly with people then I had to know something about how to do that,” she said. “People have really complicated problems.”

Permanent Housing, Good Public Policy

This realization encouraged her to focus on where her talents truly lay – public policy. The policies she champions the most all center around the importance of getting people into permanent housing as quickly as possible. This is because she believes that the best way to truly end homelessness is to focus on getting people into permanent housing faster.

This sentiment was echoed by a homeless man who approached her one day after an event and asked, “How can I be expected to do anything, get a job or get to all my appointments if I don’t even have a place to live?”

“It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Roman said. “You have to have the basics taken care of before you can focus on the other issues. If we could house everybody, then we could go on to fix the service systems, the education system, the correctional system and all that other stuff.”

Of course, housing on its own is not sufficient. There need to be services to address each person’s individual issues. But, when it comes to ending homelessness, housing is the only way to truly accomplish this monumental endeavor.

“After all, if they’re housed,” Roman pointed out, “then they’re not homeless.”

Photo credit: NHC and Center

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