Obama builds on Bush success to help the homeless

The Bush administration focused mainly on the chronically homeless, whose numbers have dropped 30 percent since 2006. An Obama plan wisely builds on that foundation to help more of the homeless, such as families and veterans.

To see what’s happening with the homeless population in America today, consider the following “30s.”

In the last three years, during the great recession, the number of people who are considered to be chronically homeless has decreased by 30 percent. Over the same time period, the number of homeless families who are temporarily living in shelters has increased by 30 percent, according to a report last week by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The opposite trends show how far America has come in trying to solve homelessness, and where it needs to redouble its efforts.

The Obama administration is attempting that extra effort with a national plan to eliminate homelessness. The plan, required by Congress, seeks to end chronic and veterans homelessness in five years – 10 years for families, youth, and children.

Encouragingly, the strategy, titled “Opening Doors,” aims to build on the success of the last administration, which concentrated on reducing the numbers of chronically homeless. These are people who are mentally ill or otherwise disabled and who have been without a residence for at least a year, or who have been homeless several times over several years.

The Bush administration focused on this group because it is the most expensive and difficult homeless population for cities and counties to care for. Because of their disability, the long-term homeless often shuttle back and forth between shelters, detox centers, hospitals, and jails.

Success in lowering the number of people repeating this debilitating cycle came from a big push by Philip Mangano, who headed the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness under President Bush. Mr. Mangano used federal incentives to get hundreds of communities – local governments, businesses, charities, and religious groups – to work with each other on 10-year plans to actually end chronic homelessness. He stressed solving the problem instead of managing it.

Mangano furthered an idea dubbed “housing first,” a strategy initially funded by Congress in 1999. The concept was elegant in its simplicity. First, help people find stable housing. Once they have the anchor of a residence, support them regularly with caseworkers and social services.

It’s a costly, individualized approach, but not nearly as expensive as managing recurring crises. Dayton, Ohio, for instance, found that on the street, one group of mentally ill homeless individuals cost taxpayers $203 a day. Moving them into a 10-unit apartment building and supporting them with health services reduced the cost to $85 a day.

Now, President Obama seeks to extend the housing-first principle to other groups, such as veterans and families. “Stable housing is the foundation upon which people build their lives,” the strategy says. Without that, “it is next to impossible to achieve good health, positive educational outcomes, or reach one’s economic potential.”

It also carries on the collaborative philosophy, in which public and private groups, from job training organizations to health and human services, work with each other. Theoretically, these many players are supposed to keep housing front and center as the starting place for their help – to prevent homelessness, and then to rapidly return people to housing when they lose it.

Theoretically, of course, because coordinating so many players can end up looking like the streets of Washington on a Friday afternoon – gridlock. Or groups may bypass each other entirely and never connect.

At the same time, high unemployment works against an individual’s ability to pay for housing, as do high-cost housing markets and the foreclosure rate. So do strapped government budgets – from city hall to the halls of Congress.

And yet, past experience now shows that a housing-first strategy works. Interestingly, overall homelessness in America decreased slightly in 2009, the year of the great recession. According to last week’s HUD report, 1.56 million people spent at least one night in a shelter or transitional housing last year – down from 1.6 million in 2008.

It takes time for homelessness to reflect a recession, because people double up or stay with relatives. Even so, the decrease is encouraging, considering the severity of the crisis. And the numbers may actually hold next year, as $1.5 billion in federal economic stimulus money takes hold in the form of rent vouchers and other assistance.

During the Bush administration, advocates for the homeless were clamoring for the federal government to pay more attention to the growing number of families who don’t have a permanent place to live. Team Obama appears to have heard that plea. It’s far from clear whether they can accomplish their goals – which they acknowledge may be more “aspirational.” But wisely, they’re building on a proven foundation.

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