TO: Mayor and Town Council
FROM: Adam Schaefer, Mayor’s Office
SUBJECT: National Summit for Jurisdictional Leaders (Sustaining Ten Year Plans to End Chronic Homelessness)
DATE: May 22, 2006
In 2005, the Town joined Orange County and the Towns of Carrboro and Hillsborough to form the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness. The Partnership is currently in the process of developing a Ten-Year Plan. The Ten-Year Plans are part of a federal program sponsored by the United State Interagency Council on Homelessness. The USICH recently held a “summit” for the leaders of those states, counties, and municipalities that are working on Ten-Year Plans. I attended the summit on behalf of Mayor Foy.
The summit, May 10-12 in Denver, was promoted as a chance for representatives from many different communities to share facts and strategies with each other. The opportunity for “peer-to-peer” sessions occupied less of the summit agenda than we had hoped, but those sessions were useful in any case.
At the peer-to-peer sessions, elected officials; local, state, and federal staff; law enforcement officers; and community leaders shared questions, thoughts, and comments with each other.
I discovered that in many ways, the local effort in Orange County is in a better situation than some other communities. We are fortunate to be part of a concerted, comprehensive effort, both in Orange County and in the larger Triangle. In some communities, there are concerns about one municipality addressing the issue while others watch (or perhaps encourage people to move to the neighboring community that is willing to address homelessness). Additionally, we are fortunate to have a relatively high level of resources available to combat the problem. In some places, the balance has tipped and blighted areas have large homeless issues with few resources to address them.
A representative from Santa Monica , California, posed a question to the group about what to do if a municipality has the resources and political will to tackle the problem, but strong community resistance to particular locations. One respondent suggested placing affordable housing and single-room occupancy (SRO) housing in investor-heavy neighborhoods instead of traditional resident-owned neighborhoods. Others said that their municipalities had either policies or laws that did not permit additional affordable housing in a place that already had at least 50 percent low-income residences. Others suggested a more direct approach, essentially advocating making decisions early and then sticking with them. Another suggested zoning vacant buildings or lots as SRO housing before something else is planned.
Another strategy for dealing with the difficulty of siting affordable housing is to educate people about facts – including that many of the target audience already lives in the community, but may use existing housing in inappropriate ways, such as crowding more people than permitted into a dwelling unit.
Another worthwhile discussion revolved around the use of law enforcement in dealing with homeless people. Some law enforcement officers at the conference expressed low regard for the current system in some places. They pointed out that repeatedly arresting the same people for substance abuse or public nuisance problems creates a drain on resources and frustration for everyone involved. Arresting the same, usually nonviolent, person for public intoxication several times a week inflicts high costs on the jurisdiction (arrest, booking, lockup, transportation, judicial, and any rehabilitative efforts offered), while creating additional barriers for people who often already have difficult barriers to self-sustaining lives. For example, some employers and housing providers do not consider people whose records show recent experience with the criminal justice system. As a result, in Portland, Oregon, the police department stopped arresting the chronically homeless. Instead they take them to a housing unit that very day. They give them keys and access to social workers. Portland has had a high success rate with this limited program: a year after it started, most participants are still in housing.
In another session, representatives from groups that have begun implementing their plans shared advice with those who are still in the planning stage. Some of that advice:
It is important for the jurisdiction’s government leaders to be very knowledgeable and involved in the issue. The places with the most success are those who have had actively engaged leaders. The places with the least success are those who have their staff lead the effort.
It is both difficult and necessary to engage all the current providers in the dialogue, planning, and execution. Current providers, especially those who administer to the non-chronic homeless, may see a 10-Year Plan as a threat. It is important not to get into a competition with existing providers.
At the same time, communities have found it worthwhile to take an inventory of the services provided throughout the community, and the resources (public and private) necessary to maintain them. Several participants spoke of agencies in their communities that maintain the status quo but are unable to adapt to changing conditions. They advise that it is crucial to identify those groups and work with them to be more effective as part of the plan. Otherwise such agencies tend to drain resources that could be better utilized.
Some localities have set up regional organizations to deal with chronic homelessness, with varying success. Sometimes turf wars arise, especially with regard to financing. To combat this problem, in the Minneapolis region, the regional group jointly applied for funding, which is then tied to the individual person – so that no matter where in the region that person moves, the resources follow him or her.
Two specific caveats were mentioned by groups who would do things differently in retrospect:
Some said that they did not do enough to engage the business and faith communities in planning. In many places businesses are willing to use their resources to help because they understand their stake in the issue. The faith community is so large that even a relatively small effort on the part of individual congregations can make a large difference, community wide.
Many said that they would have included more quantitative measures in their plans. Merely identifying the “homeless” or “chronically homeless” and then counting them each year is not necessarily the most effective way to measure a plan’s success. They encourage other communities to measure placements, arrests, resources expended per capita, and other quantifiable standards.
This last point emphasizes the program that Philip Mangano, head of the USICH, advocates. He wants communities to embrace results-driven programs instead of theoretical programs. He believes that even modest results can spur funding increases.
Policymakers in Orange County are near the point where they will need to determine whether to pursue a program designed to ameliorate chronic homelessness (which encompasses approximately 10 percent of the homeless population on a national level, but which consumes a much greater percentage of resources) or to attempt a more comprehensive strategy.
The experience and advice of the summit participants could be useful and instructive. Having quantifiable measures should help identify the problem and progress made, regardless of what the program actually is. Engaging the business and faith communities early in the process could prove an invaluable source of financial and human resources. A comprehensive inventory of services provided and resources spent will help identify where gaps or weak points are. And strong political leadership will help advance the program, regardless of what details are ultimately part of the plan.