Bush’s War on Poverty, Part II

by Jeffrey M. Jones
Saturday, April 30, 2005

Editor's note: This—the second of a two-part article—assesses whether the initiatives to end chronic homelessness in 10 years are realistic and the goals achievable. The first part focuses on what these initiatives originally promised to accomplish.

There are two ways to read the 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness that communities across the country are preparing and implementing. One is in a hopeful light, the other in a skeptical haze.

With unbounded optimism, the national attention on combating homelessness represents a major social policy breakthrough. At the core is the understanding that we’ve been doing homeless services all wrong during the past 25 years. Our earlier efforts focused on managing homelessness, when what is required is a system that prevents and ends homelessness. This reorientation of vision, with the ensuing reallocation of resources, will bring our communities into the promised land of a home for every homeless person.

The skeptic might begin by questioning the veracity of a public policy that proposes to “end” a condition as old as mankind itself and to do it in exactly 10 years. It’s the social service advocates’ version of “speaking truth to power”—a feel-good moment that bears little resemblance to reality. Add to this the irresponsible tendency of government to endorse reform schemes on a grand scale that have had only limited success in specific circumstances. The critic can become overwhelmed by the sheer number of bad ideas masquerading as good policy.

Neither of these outlooks is particularly helpful in preparing a thoughtful, even-handed evaluation of the 10-year plan initiative. Instead, I hope to strike a balance of compliment and criticism that shines a light on the best ideas hidden within existing plans. Revealing the bad along with the good may also assist communities in avoiding those pesky unintended consequences that so often plague our good intentions.
A View from the Top
Before delving into the specifics of community plans, we should first evaluate the broader concept of a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. This entails looking at differences in approach by two key players—the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) and the federal government.

One wonders if the directors and staff of NAEH are still pinching themselves over how quickly and universally their idea for ending homelessness caught on. After all, advocacy groups exist primarily to get their ideas heard on the Hill and at the White House; by that measure the NAEH has hit the jackpot. It has not only influenced key legislation but changed the entire direction of homeless policy in the United States. Presumably, it takes pride in its accomplishments, but the political victory is a partial one at best.

My first point is that whereas the NAEH created a plan subtitled How to End Homelessness in Ten Years, the federal government truncated this goal by endorsing an end to chronic homelessness in 10 years. This is not simply a semantic difference. Addressing chronic homelessness is a key part of the NAEH plan but represents only one of the three subpopulations targeted—episodic homelessness and transitional homelessness being the other two. It’s hard to read the plan and not conclude that a system for dealing with the current “dysfunctional situation [that] is becoming more and more institutionalized” must reach all three groups simultaneously. Yet the Bush administration, having latched onto the chronically homeless component, is directing programmatic resources and federal funding to this agenda. The mismatch of vision to strategy suggests that implementation of the 10-year plan will be sporadic throughout the country, as different communities adopt different end objectives.

The four steps for ending homelessness as outlined by the National Alliance offer both innovative ideas endorsed at the federal level and strangely archaic notions that run counter to the present administration’s political bent. The first step, planning for outcomes, is an idea whose time has come. With its emphasis on data collection, community-wide planning, and outcome-based programs, this step mirrors a general federal shift toward transparency and accountability in public services. There is a long overdue need for accurate local data on the number of homeless people and their characteristics. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the primary conduit for federal funding of homeless services and shelter, has only recently issued guidelines for how to count homeless residents, and communities still aren’t required to conduct a census of the homeless. Until an accurate means of counting both sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons is implemented nationwide, we won’t have any way of assessing who is chronically homeless and if and how they are being helped.

The second step, closing the front door, also makes a lot of sense. Encouraging communities to focus on preventing homelessness in the first place offers hope that homeless shelters can cease being a revolving door. When mainstream service providers take responsibility for the housing needs of their clients, the number of new homeless persons will drop significantly. Two concerns must be addressed, however, before this ideal scenario can be realized. First, the NAEH acknowledges but never addresses how mainstream systems that “are over-subscribed and under-funded relative to their responsibilities” will find the resources to ensure that their clients do not become homeless. Second, does it make sense for “safety net” services to take on providing housing when HUD homeless funds are increasingly directed to housing, not services? Instead of shifting responsibility from one stressed public system to another, this may be the perfect opportunity for privately financed organizations to step into the gap created in the wake of two large and entrenched welfare systems.

Beginning with the third step, opening the back door, the NAEH plan increasingly veers away from the policy prescriptions of the Bush administration. Initially, both versions want to open doors so that every chronically homeless person in America can move off the streets and into permanent supportive housing. The NAEH readily acknowledges that an additional $1.3 billion annually is necessary for the new housing units alone. The feds have been more circumspect, preferring to redirect current outlays toward permanent housing and setting up smaller initiatives targeting the chronically homeless. The real disconnect is between the NAEH-endorsed “Housing First” approach for homeless families and young adults and the Bush administration’s efforts to cut costs by paring back Section 8 rental vouchers.* The two are headed in opposite directions. By electing to focus on the chronically homeless, the president has made the kind of hard choice required in an age of federal deficits and Republican-style governing. In contrast, homeless advocacy groups show their fiscal naïveté by imagining no limit to federal spending on permanent housing.

Although building the infrastructure is the fourth step in the NAEH plan, there is no policy equivalent in the federal proposal to end chronic homelessness. The NAEH believes that a primary reason for today’s widespread homelessness is the tearing down of the public infrastructure of housing, income, and services during the last 25 years (i.e., since the Reagan administration). The solutions offered for rebuilding this infrastructure are entirely progressive in nature—amounting to more government subsidies for affordable housing, increases to the minimum wage, and the full funding of a vast array of public services. This social diagnosis and prescription simply have no sway in a nation represented by a newly reelected Republican majority. The NAEH has chosen the pragmatic route by endorsing Bush’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, despite the missing fourth step.

The same cannot be said for a number of other influential homeless advocacy groups, including the nation’s oldest and largest, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). In an open letter to the director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the NCH criticized the president’s initiative and proposed alternative legislation to end homelessness for everyone. Such organizations will not be satisfied until Congress goes on the record as “supporting housing as a basic human right, Universal Health Care and a Living Wage,” among other things. Whether these ideals can ever achieve results equal to their rhetoric is a question for another day.
Groundbreaking Strategies
The national agenda to end chronic homelessness is an improvement over past efforts to manage homelessness. By choosing to focus on this discrete problem, the federal government hopes to motivate local communities and engender real results. Has the message gotten through? To determine what is happening at the local level, four cities of contrasting size from different parts of the country were selected and their 10-year plans analyzed. Here are the results:

Springfield, Illinois. This small, midwestern city of 100,000 has developed a strategic plan to end chronic homelessness by 2014. The Heartland Continuum of Care and the Mayor’s Homeless Task Force want to enable the homeless to “secure and maintain decent, safe, sanitary and affordable housing.” To do this, they propose a four-component strategy: coordination, public awareness, prevention, and maintenance.

This is the shortest and least compelling of the four plans reviewed. Its chief weakness is that it is a strategic plan document, not an implementation plan. Indeed, the second component is boilerplate strategy for engaging the media and raising community support for the measure. A better route (as demonstrated by Raleigh, North Carolina) would have been to use the 10-year planning process as the means to raise community awareness. But that opportunity is gone.

The maintenance component is also a weak point in the plan. The only objective listed is to “maintain or increase the level of existing emergency, transitional, and permanent affordable housing.” But aspects of this mission may contradict those of ending chronic homelessness; other communities are planning to phase out their emergency and transitional shelters over the next 10 years. This lack of thoroughness suggests that Springfield may simply be going through the motions to comply with HUD expectations and funding mandates.

The best ideas in the plan are laid out in the coordination and prevention components. Together they demonstrate the first groundbreaking strategy of innovative 10-year plans: information. Communities must develop robust systems for acquiring and sharing information on the homeless. Springfield and hundreds of other cities are implementing Homeless Management Information Systems to accomplish this task. Technological advancements and greater cost-effectiveness are allowing communities to track system use by homeless clients, obtain accurate counts of the homeless, and coordinate case management services. It may even be possible to link persons being discharged from the foster care system, jails, or hospitals with area housing providers so that they are prevented from becoming homeless. Improved information gathering will, in the end, aid our evaluation of the effectiveness of the chronic homelessness initiative and facilitate the sharing of best practices throughout the country.

Raleigh, North Carolina. This southern community of 276,000 is one of two communities intent on ending homelessness for everyone, not just the chronically homeless. The clearly stated vision is that “we will reorient our service system from one that manages homelessness to one that prevents and ends homelessness.” Five key objectives animate this vision: prevention, engagement, housing, employment/education, and services and supports.

There are really no structural weaknesses in the plan put forth by Raleigh. It is what a 10-year plan should be: insightful, detailed, structured, and balanced. This is the best of the four plans analyzed and is likely one of the strongest in the nation. It demonstrates the importance of the second groundbreaking strategy: motivation. Communities that are truly motivated to address the problem of homelessness are positioned to reap the best results for their efforts. From the beginning, community input and action were a priority. The Raleigh planning process included a steering committee, a planning team, five public meetings, six homeless focus groups, eight community leadership forums, and even an intercollegiate conference on homelessness. The clarity and scope of the plan are the direct result of this comprehensive process.

My only caution is the tendency of highly motivated groups to muffle opposing views on the road to consensus. The tone and language of the Raleigh plan imply a community-wide recognition that homelessness is primarily an issue of housing affordability. Thus, as the executive summary suggests, “Allowing people to become or remain homeless is ineffective, inhumane, and costly.” But not everyone who thinks about, works with, or studies the homeless views the problem as primarily a structural one (i.e., not enough housing or too-low wages). Many argue that destructive individual behaviors are the lead issue, with poverty-related barriers secondary.

The Raleigh plan, however, does a fair job of accounting for both these perspectives. Unfortunately, other communities can and do minimize competing conceptions in their zest to abolish homelessness. If the structural-barriers position holds sway, it becomes feasible to “plot” a solution to homelessness by building houses and filling service gaps. When done in a haphazard fashion (as in San Francisco), such ideals threaten to undo the greater plan, as every conceivable priority is allocated its share of money. The result is something other than a thoughtful plan; it becomes an advocate’s rant.

Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital of 572,000 residents also has hopes of ending homelessness. Its “Homeless No More” plan envisions a day “when there are no more men and women living on the streets of Washington, D.C.” To achieve this, the District proposes to convert from a homeless Continuum of Care system to a community-based care system supported by mainstream and private service providers. The District’s three central policy directives are prevention, housing, and collaboration.

This ambitious plan reveals the problems and potential of a third groundbreaking strategy: coordination. Like many large American cities, Washington, D.C., has an extensive network of public and private social services reaching the general population as well as the homeless. By restructuring the government side, “through a careful re-tooling and better use of our mainstream public systems,” the District hopes to end homelessness. The city is creating its own Interagency Council on Homelessness to leverage these resources. A variety of innovative programs become possible when coordination is put at the forefront. In D.C. these efforts include a “housing plus” approach that links permanent housing with wraparound support services, new “core service agencies” that provide persons with mental illness a clinical home, one-stop career centers, and satellite outpatient treatment services at area homeless shelters and assistance centers.

A heavily coordinated system, however, can experience significant disruptions in the delivery of housing and services. The central objective of the D.C. plan is to develop 6,000 new units of affordable, supportive housing. Described as both a “good start” and a “solid beginning,” these units will depend heavily on local, federal, and private grants. But what if lawmakers in Congress decide to cut back on funding for affordable housing? By its own calculations, the District could lose as many as 6,000 Section 8 affordable housing vouchers by 2014. If this scenario were to unfold, the District’s strategy for ending homelessness in 10 years would be a wash. The double-edged sword of coordination cuts both ways.

San Francisco, California. The largest of the cities surveyed, at 776,000 people, San Francisco has developed its own plan to abolish chronic homelessness. Self-described as a “let’s house people now” plan, the effort carries a sense of urgency owing to the estimated 3,000 chronically homeless living on the streets. Indeed, the entire plan was developed in just three and half months. The single motivating objective outlined in the plan is to provide permanent supportive housing.

The plan’s opening page laments the ongoing dilemma of homelessness in San Francisco—described as a contradiction between the potential of this grand city (its locale, people, and programs) and the reality of having the nation’s worst homeless crisis. The irony is that the plan itself mirrors this inconsistency. Having recently elected a new mayor whose main campaign promise was to solve the homeless problem, San Francisco was positioned to do great things. Unfortunately, the planning council has presented a mess of a plan. There are bright spots, but the overall impression is one of disorganized and untenable goals.

Despite itself, the San Francisco plan articulates the final groundbreaking strategy for ending chronic homelessness: provision. The surest way to reduce the number of homeless persons living on the streets is to provide them with permanent supportive housing. Each of the four cities reviewed listed a specific number of new units to be added during the next 10 years. With real provision comes real costs, not just for the units themselves but for the treatment services, health care, and counseling that will keep formerly homeless individuals stable. The price tag will be expensive, meaning that taxpayers should expect a well thought-out delivery approach. San Francisco gives its residents the high costs minus the good planning.

The saving grace for San Francisco and other communities across the nation is the expected cost savings from housing the chronically homeless. Based on a landmark Fannie Mae Foundation study led by Professor Dennis P. Culhane, permanent supportive housing was shown to reduce significantly the use of costly public services (shelters, hospitalization, incarceration) among the mentally ill homeless. Raleigh estimates that it could save approximately $4,800 a person each month by providing this population with supportive housing, and San Francisco theorizes that it could save as much as $45,000 a year by providing one chronically homeless person with permanent supportive housing. These figures are significantly higher than what current research supports and therefore represent only the potential savings. Culhane’s research findings, and those of other programs such as San Diego’s Serial Inebriation Program, must continue to be studied and emulated. But the opportunity to save public resources and house a desperate population is surely at the heart of why the initiative to end chronic homelessness remains so inspiring.

Although there is much to be wary of in the tectonic shift in national homeless policy, there are many things to be excited about. Communities across the country are experiencing a fresh infusion of ideas, energy, and volunteers to lend a hand in the fight to alleviate homelessness. By focusing on the groundbreaking strategies of information, motivation, coordination, and provision, local plans can lay a strong foundation. Will such efforts succeed in ending chronic homelessness? No. But this conclusion need not discredit the initiative. This journey just begun will give thousands of individuals and families the chance to have a home and build a life.