Homeless Agencies Can Transform the Quest to End Homelessness

By | Aug 25, 2014

Helping_the_homelessThirty years ago, PATH was created because a group of local people noticed an increase in homelessness on the Westside of Los Angeles. They founded an agency that would temporarily provide food and shelter, believing that homelessness would be resolved within five years.

That didn’t happen.

Thirty years later, instead of homelessness-free streets, the opposite has occurred. Streets, parks, hills, beaches, sidewalks, alleys, and rivers are inundated with people who are homeless.

In recent years, experts have blamed traditional homeless service providers for only offering temporary solutions instead of permanent housing. Much of the criticism is warranted. Blaming these compassionate agencies for the rise in homelessness over the last few decades, however, is not.

Approaches to ending homelessness in this country have changed dramatically since the early days of setting up shelters. Strategies like Housing First, rapid re-housing, and homelessness prevention are the new solutions to this long-standing problem.

For homeless agencies that have traditionally centered their services around rehabilitation, transitional housing, shelters, and food, these newfangled solutions run contrary to the belief that people need to be rehabilitated before moving into permanent housing.

But funders have redirected their resources to support permanent housing, and many traditional homeless agencies have gone out of business. In the past few years, PATH has absorbed a handful of agencies that were close to going bankrupt.

Like any other outdated trend, the way we were addressing homelessness had to change. Remember 8-track tapes, Kodak film, and IBM Selectric typewriters? It’s possible you don’t. Let’s hope homeless agencies don’t join this list of forgotten items.

So, how do homeless agencies stay relevant in a time when short-term solutions are out of vogue?

After 18 years of running an agency that started off as an emergency solution to homelessness and converted to a permanent housing focus, I contend that homeless agencies are not only still relevant but can be used to support today’s approach to ending homelessness.

The expertise that homeless agencies have possessed for decades is key to ending homelessness. Although there are many strategic solutions that homeless agencies provide, let me focus on two: supportive services and grass-roots support.

Supportive Services – Housing First, the permanent supportive housing-focused solution, has radically altered the way communities approach homelessness. Homeless agencies possess expertise that this new housing movement desperately needs in order to succeed.

Building new housing, or placing people with housing vouchers in existing apartments, won’t end homelessness unless we place the right people into housing. Today, the priority for housing goes to those who are the most vulnerable living on the streets. Homeless agencies have the street smarts and experienced outreach workers necessary to find and place these people.

Once these individuals are finally housed, homeless agencies have experienced case managers to provide the supportive services necessary to help them stay in their homes long-term. And, now that we are housing more people, we—and agencies like us—have prioritized creating a quality community experience for people who are housed.

In the past two years, my agency has permanently housed nearly 40 people per week, two-thirds of whom were chronically homeless. We have more than 100 case workers (more than half of whom have a Master’s in Social Work) that provide support for the thousands of formerly-homeless people who are now housed.

It’s a drastic change from our old shelter days.

Grass-roots Support – Over the past few decades, most privately-operated homeless agencies have built a strong network of community supporters who donate money and volunteer. These grass-roots supporters are key to the success of the housing movement.

PATH’s thousands of supporters have donated land on which to build housing, created community gardens in apartment complexes, planned community activities for the people we serve, and mobilized friends, family, and faith groups to furnish apartments for newly-housed people.

What volunteer opportunity has the greatest impact? Cooking a meal for someone living in a shelter? Or getting a group of your friends to collect donated furniture and household goods, and moving someone in need into their very own apartment?

Now, just imagine the impact if the millions of people who already support local homeless agencies changed their approach and helped move people into homes.

I do believe that homeless programs have a significant role to play in ending this country’s homelessness. As traditional homeless agencies shift their focus to Housing First strategies, they move away from becoming a forgotten Sony Walkman tape player and closer to being a modern Apple iPhone.