Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What Happens When We Really Start to End Homelessness

August 05, 2014

I have been a fairly consistent attendee at the annual conferences of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) for more than a decade.  This year’s conference, held during the last week of July, was notably different from past gatherings.  For starters, the conference sold out weeks in advance.  It may well have been one of the hottest tickets in town.  It also drew some remarkable speakers. 

Julian Castro used his first formal appearance since becoming the new Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to articulate HUD’s priority focus on homelessness.  US Senator Cory Booker provided a keynote address that conjoined personal stories about housing advocacy with rousing quotations from great American thinkers like Langston Hughes and Cornel West.  And for the final keynote, First Lady Michelle Obama energized the crowd as she described homelessness among veterans as “a stain on the soul of this nation.”

One of the realities that I think made this particular conference different was the knowledge that we are, in fact, now making significant progress towards our goal of ending homelessness.  And it’s the documentation of this success that is winning us more champions, and increasing support for our work.

According to the best available national data as reported by NAEH, from 2012 to 2013, overall homelessness across the US decreased by 3.7 percent.  Furthermore, decreases are being documented across a number of groups for which homelessness is measured.  Family homelessness is down 7%, chronic homelessness among individuals is down 7.3%, and veteran homelessness is down by the same amount. 

Right here in our own state, HUD reports that family homelessness – the focus of the Gates Foundation’s work – decreased by almost 23% in 2013, the 4th largest decrease for any state in the nation, and by more than 29% since 2007, before the Great Recession.

Admittedly, we still have a long way to go; 31 states saw drops in homelessness in the last year, while 20 states saw increases in overall homelessness.  As the experts dive into this data, what is increasingly clear is that we now know the best ways to reduce and ultimately end the crisis of homelessness for individuals, youth, families and veterans

The evidence points towards the best responses:  Permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing within a “housing first” framework, service-enriched transitional housing for homeless youth, formal programmatic linkages to mainstream systems to help build skills, job-readiness, social capital and individual and family resilience, just to name a few.  The rich content of the workshops that were offered during the NAEH conference provided example after example from across the nation of communities that are implementing these and other promising and evidence-based practices that are ending homelessness for tens of thousands of Americans. 

Rather than wringing our hands about a problem that for years spiraled out of control, what swelled the crowds at this year’s conference and electrified speakers and audiences alike was the knowledge that we can – and we are – making significant progress in addressing a problem that many have believed for decades was an unsolvable, intractable, permanent part of the American landscape.

In a pre-conference Institute sponsored by Funders Together to End Homelessness,  philanthropic sector partners from foundations, corporate giving programs, and United Ways shared stories of how public/private partnerships are leveraging change in communities across the nation and increasing catalytic, strategic investments in solutions that end, rather than manage, homelessness.

During the conference, the organizers and supporters of 100,000 Homes were invited to the White House to celebrate the successful completion of a campaign to house 100,000 of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals who are homeless, a goal that was surpassed only a few weeks ago.  

Even as conference attendees acknowledged enormous remaining obstacles that include decreasing supplies of affordable housing and not enough jobs that pay a family wage, the progress we are making has spawned an optimism that was hard to miss.  The skeptics are losing ground as we demonstrate that we can achieve the day when homelessness, if it does occur, will be something rare, brief in duration, and a one-time-only experience.                       

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