Making a difference in ending homelessness? Prove it. Don’t spin it.
Recently, a city and county in Southern California started making major changes it its approach to homelessness. They got rid of seasonal tents. They started focusing on year-round services. They even had the foresight to put some targets to their approach. One target was to have 75% of program participants exit into housing. The other target was to have lengths of stay average 45 days. Both are laudable, though perhaps a stretch for the community. With the right coaching, alignment of resources, and commitment it may be possible to get to this target within a year or two.
By the time the project was contracted, things had changed from the initial RFP. No longer was it 75%. It was 65%. And no longer was it exits to housing. It became exits to longer-term options. And politicians and service providers started the spin machine and revved it up into a fury. This, they would have people believe, was success.
Let me show you the exit data from the initial phase of operations:
Destination Count of Destination Average of Days
Emergency shelter 3 30
Hospital 34 58
Hotel/Motel 18 43
Jail 13 54
Long-term care facility 11 52
Prm Supportive Housing 7 81
Not meant for habitation 705 41
Psychiatric hospital 7 65
Rental, no subsidy 135 59
Rental, VASH 14 112
Staying with family/friend 147 47
Substance Use Treatment 47 22
Transitional housing 352 86
Rental, non VASH subsidy 20 151
Grand Total 1513 56
You do not have to be a data nerd to see what is happening. Only a very small percentage of people are moving into permanent housing, and it is taking quite a long-time (at least a lot longer than the target). There is a massive number of people returning to homelessness in places unfit for human habitation. There is also a large group of people moving into transitional housing in this community, and it takes about three months for that to happen. Thus, the spin. The real results as per the initial intent of the RFP were horrendous. This is all about making lemonade from lemons for the community, not about fixing the actual problems.
They (service providers, politicians, etc.) will say the issue is one of lack of affordable housing, and if there is not more affordable housing brought on board they will not solve the problem. News flash – I have yet to find a place in the world that has enough affordable housing or where income comes close to helping people access private accommodation.
The next part of the narrative (spin) is usually one where people will talk about the substance use, mental illness and poverty amongst this group of people, which makes them difficult to house. Here are the facts for California where this community is located: about 3% have an addiction or dependency on illicit drugs and about 6% have heavy alcohol use, where 89% did not get any treatment or rehabilitation for the illicit drug use and about 93% did not get any assistance for their heavy alcohol use – yet almost all of these people are housed and will never be homeless; about 4% of the population of California lives with a Serious Mental Illness and less than 64% get any counselling or mental health treatment – almost all of these people are housed and will never be homeless; about 15% of the community lives in economic poverty, where the average median rent is about $1,400, yet almost everyone that is living in poverty is housed and will never be homeless – and almost all of these people will be housed in the private market without any federal or state subsidy (by a landslide this is the case), and while about a third of households are living in doubled up situations, most are not. The problem is not the lack of affordable housing. It is that the service provider does not know how to access affordable housing opportunities. This is not part of the spin. The service provider is confusing their ignorance for fact, and that fact gets spun into the mouths of the elected officials.
We need to start being truly data driven, not excuse driven. Nobody gives a community or organization funding to provide excuses. They invest money to make an impact in ending homelessness. If the same efforts were put into learning how to do it and practicing it, we would all be much further ahead.