A new strategy for helping the homeless is sweeping the nation.
Eighteen months ago, the Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners signed onto the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, making Greater Asheville the 108th urban area to join.
Since then, the roster of participating municipalities has swelled to more than 300, with North Carolina leading the way in the number of total cities signed on, according to Robin Merrell, a staff attorney at Pisgah Legal Services and one of the principal authors of the local plan.
On June 15, the initiative moved from idea to implementation, as a task force of WNC-based agencies and organizations met to begin mapping the multipronged effort. The gathering was the first of what will be an ongoing series of quarterly meetings.
The task force, founded in 2004, represents an unusually broad coalition, including representatives from the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, the Asheville Downtown Association, the Affordable Housing Coalition, the Buncombe County Detention Center, the Buncombe County Health Department, the Church of the Advocate, the city of Asheville, Mission Hospitals, Hospitality House, New Vistas Behavioral Health Services and the VA Medical Center.
Project Director Amy Sawyer of the Affordable Housing Coalition, which was selected as the lead agency for the local project, orchestrated the meeting. She reported that a “point in time” count had been done in Buncombe County on Jan. 6, and concluded that there were 486 homeless persons in the county. Of those, 127 were deemed chronically homeless, with 77 in subsidized long term housing units.
The local numbers mirror those in national multi-year studies, and suggest a dramatic drop in homelessness in recent years. As recently as 2004, a city/county task force on homelessness reported 2,000 people without shelter in the county (see “Mixed receptions,” Dec. 15, 2004 Xpress).
Sawyer credited much of the change to a new approach to the homeless, referred to as “housing first,” which underlies the national Ten Year initiative. Whereas in the past, agencies and charitable organizations focused their efforts mainly on jobs, medical help and substance-abuse treatment, the new philosophy stresses getting the homeless into stable, affordable living situations as a first step.
The approach appears to be helping throughout the country. Mother Jones magazine reported last year that, in city after city, the housing-first approach is at least as cost effective as the old system of emergency shelters or simply leaving people on the street, because of savings in emergency medical and mental-health care, as well as in law enforcement and incarceration. Reporter Douglas McGray noted that “homelessness can be part of the cause of psychiatric problems as well as an effect: A life without privacy or shelter can turn even a manageable mental illness into full-blown madness.” According to a 1999 U.S. Department of Justice report, at least 16 percent of the total jail and prison population, or nearly 300,000 people, have a serious mental illness.
At the task force meeting, Sawyer credited the slow downward trend in homelessness to “community collaboration … and supportive housing opportunities that have increased locally, as well as individualized support efforts.”
Merrell noted that “our problem is not unique — the situation looks pretty much the same across the country.” She said she and others have “taken a look at other plans, to get creative solutions, and that led to a five-prong approach.”
The first step was to appoint a lead entity, a role now filled by the AHC.
The next is to develop infrastructure, including a Homeless Management Information System. A statewide HMIS has been developed to link all services, screen for program eligibility and gather data needed to monitor progress. Merrell explained that participation in HMIS is not mandatory, that homeless persons can receive services without enrolling (which involves filing personal information with the state), but that participating helps both clients and agencies.
The third prong, referred to as “Closing the Front Door,” entails offering preventive assistance to keep individuals and families from becoming homeless. This effort includes better coordination of financial-assistance programs and additional discharge planning for people leaving public institutions. Merrell named prevention efforts as “one of the reasons chronic homelessness has dropped.”
A fourth, corollary prong, dubbed “Opening the Back Door — Housing First,” involves steps to improve community programs that provide permanent housing for the homeless.
The final prong, labeled, “Keeping It Going — Housing Plus,” includes specialized, individualized services for individuals and families, so they can remain in housing.
The next quarterly task force meeting is slated for Sept. 14.