By Kris Kuntz, Principal, LeSar Development Consultants
Over 1,000 people, including myself and some LDC colleagues, attended the annual National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) conference the week of July 22 in Washington, DC. Although many themes emerged during the three–day event, none were more apparent and important than the simple fact that the best way to address homelessness is through access to a safe, secure, affordable home. During her opening plenary, Nan Roman, President and CEO of the NAEH, highlighted the challenge of federal priorities, noting that providing a yearly rental subsidy to every homeless household (i.e. ending their homelessness), is only one sixth the cost of operating a single aircraft carrier for one year. Other than the operating costs of aircraft carriers, some other key takeaways include:
- The homeless system needs to engage the criminal justice system in designing solutions. In a pre-conference session on the criminal justice system and homelessness, presenters shared data on the extent of overlap between systems, which is well-known for many of us. But my most important takeaway came from panelist Elizabeth Buck from the Council for State Governments Justice Center. She said that the homeless system needs to engage the criminal justice system to design interventions to address homelessness, not the other way around. Historically, the criminal justice system pursues strategies that often result in higher barrier treatment, enforcement, and sobriety models that do not produce positive results. This paradigm needs to change, and the homeless system should be the ones designing interventions that are Housing First oriented, specifically being low barrier, and focused on housing stability with person-centered supports.
- There are no real best practices for addressing encampments, but there are some promising practices. Several sessions addressed encampments. One featured speakers from Minnesota, which resolved a large encampment that included many homeless Native Americans through the creation of a low barrier shelter on tribal land, as well as Philadelphia which similarly resolved a large encampment using some street-based Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) protocols to offer support for those with opioid use disorders. Neither city claimed to have totally solved the issue but presented interesting ideas that had some success. Key similarities were strong partnerships across sectors, longer engagement periods prior to encampment closure, being supportive services oriented, authentic engagement with those in the encampments, and hard work and dedication.
- The homeless population is aging, and many are entering homelessness for the first time late in life. Dr. Dennis Culhane from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Margot Kushel from the University of California San Francisco each presented recent research on the aging homeless population. Dr. Culhane’s study noted that if we keep going at the current rate, the costs to care for this group will be astronomical. Dr. Kushel’s study from Oakland, CA found that many of the older homeless population (44%) entered homelessness for the first time after the age of 50. This new group includes people who have worked their entire life but whose Social Security Income is not enough to cover high housing costs, or those who experienced a life changing event that destabilized their housing. It is devastating to know that older adults are ending up on the streets at an age when they should be retired and living the good life.
- Shallow subsidies continue to be intriguing. At last year’s conference, I attended a session on Washington, DC’s DC Flex Program. They were just launching a pilot to provide homeless or at-risk families in the city with a shallow rent subsidy of up to $7,200 annually. A family can draw from the fund each month to assist with rent. This year, the DC team presented some initial findings which are very promising but not without challenges. One interesting challenge was that many families exhausted their yearly subsidy allotment by month seven and were not able to access more funds until recertification at the end of the year. I also learned that the VA is launching a demonstration within their Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) program that will allow SSVF providers to offer shallow subsidies for those exiting Rapid Re-Housing (RRH) but who may need some limited ongoing financial support to cover rent. John Kuhn, who leads SSVF at the VA, remarked that in many high-priced metro areas, even getting a full-time job while in RRH does not mean a household can afford the full rent. In high–cost housing markets even fully–employed households will likely struggle with rent, and may need continued shallow financial assistance to avoid homelessness.
- The media can be your friend. One session highlighted the media’s role in reporting on homelessness. A reporter from the Seattle Times talked about the paper’s Project Homeless work and how they tried to take a systems-level look at what was happening with Seattle’s response to the issue. I was blown away by the reporter’s knowledge. He could talk about in–flow and out-flow of the homeless system as if he was a researcher or someone who has been working on the issue for decades. Also, San Diego’s local homelessness reporter, Lisa Halverstadt, presented on her work with the Voice of San Diego, highlighting for the crowd how the media can say things that homeless service providers or others in the community cannot. But the big takeaway was how committed both reporters have been to covering the issue and how they wanted their journalism to lead to real solutions in their communities.
- Stella P is pretty cool. HUD demonstrated their new system performance tool, Stella P, and I was impressed. The tool allows communities to analyze system–level data from their new Longitudinal Systems Analysis (LSA) report and focuses on three core system outcomes – length of time homeless, placements into permanent housing, and returns to homelessness. For each outcome, users can drill down to understand what factors are impacting their numbers. HUD has also made it easy to provide insights into specific issues that are driving specific performance. The tool also allows users to not just analyze the data, but to begin action planning on how to address specific problems. This is the start of true data-driven decision-making in communities.