A recent Gallup Poll found that "nearly two-thirds of Americans are concerned about hunger and homelessness in the nation." Such widespread unease has the attention of public officials from city mayors up to the president, and they are lining up to address the homeless issue. Over the past year, communities in every state have joined with the federal government on a national initiative to end chronic homelessness in ten years.
The chronically homeless make up just 10 percent of the homeless population nationwide but use 50 percent of the sheltering resources and other costly public services such as emergency rooms, detox facilities, jails, and courts. This results from the intensity of the problems experienced—the chronically homeless lack stable housing for long periods of time (often years), frequently suffer from mental illnesses, and begin with or later acquire serious physical disabilities and drug and alcohol addictions.
By targeting the chronically homeless, the Bush administration hopes to solve a finite problem affecting community safety and attractiveness and to free up resources for homeless youth and families. Another motivating factor, backed increasingly by federal dollars, is the emphasis on ending rather than managing homelessness. What sets this "new approach" apart from past efforts?
First, planning to end chronic homelessness brings with it a demand for accurate and detailed information on who is homeless, why, and what services they use. Moreover, it is important to know which programs are successful in ending homelessness. A decade ago, this type of data collection was rarely done—primarily due to opposition among homeless service providers over issues of privacy. Today, the demand for data to verify reductions in the number of homeless and hold programs accountable for results dominates privacy concerns. This is, overall, a positive development that should improve the delivery of housing and services and help eliminate ineffective programs.
Second, we're seeing a reorientation of the role of jails, hospitals, welfare programs, and the foster care system in preventing homelessness for those no longer under their care. Efforts are under way to coordinate discharges and place clients directly into transitional or permanent housing, thereby reducing the probability of their becoming homeless. This too is a useful idea but one that may be more difficult to implement considering the limited resources of mainstream public services and their tendency to resist change.
Third, the task of ending chronic homelessness has elevated the provision of permanent support services housing above emergency shelter remedies. By linking housing with on-site counseling, substance abuse treatment, and health care, the heavy use of public services is reduced. Proponents of supportive housing see a comprehensive and permanent fix to chronic homelessness for little or no additional cost, which has communities across the country energized. This may be an instance, however, where more is promised than can be delivered.
Will we end chronic homelessness in ten years? No. But the changes now under way in cities both large and small will move us closer to this goal.