Four years ago, a nonprofit organization named Community Solutions, declared they could reduce homelessness in the country by 100,000 people.
In the Washington region, Montgomery County housed 96 homeless people during the campaign; Fairfax, 222; and Arlington, 90. The District, which this year saw a 13.5 increase in homelessness, housed 2,422.
The announcement of the program’s success was notable, particularly during a time when President Obama has issued a directive to local governments to end homelessness in the country by 2020. Meanwhile, several cities — including the District — are struggling with a rising number of homeless residents.
The work that Kanis organized is quickly becoming the national standard on how to reduce homelessness among the county’s most vulnerable citizens — and many municipal governments are starting to buy in.
Community Solutions champions an idea called “permanent supportive housing.” Here’s how it works: Local government workers and nonprofit groups scour areas where they are most likely to find the “chronically homeless” — people who have been living on the streets for a prolonged period of time and/or might have mental health or substance abuse issues.
The old model would find treatment for the person while he is still homeless, ultimately preparing him to be “ready” for a new place. This new model gives the homeless person the keys to an apartment first. Then, the person is connected with case managers and counselors who could help deal with whatever health or financial issue they need. The homeless person never has to leave the apartment, so long as they keep the place clean or follow whatever plan has been decided by the case manager. Government pays the rent. The group charts the success of keeping the formerly homeless off the streets at about 80 percent.
“We can forever dispense that Neanderthal debate over whether or not someone deserves or is ready for housing,” Kanis told the crowd. “Quite frankly, it’s boring, and I for one never want to have that conversation again.”
This model is different than rapid rehousing, a program that heavily subsidizes apartments for homeless families for a period of time. Such a program can work for someone who is going through hard times and needs a little help, Kanis said. Permanent supportive housing helps to stabilize a person who needs a lot of help.
Of course, the strategy is reliant on two big variables. There must be enough housing stock to house the homeless and enough money in the city coffers to continue paying rent. It is now widely believed that housing the homeless in apartments yields better results than keeping the homeless in shelters by boosting a person’s standard of living and sense of well-being. Many government officials have also argued that relying less on shelters saves money because cities no longer have to shell out money for costs that come with running a building.
Still, Kanis said, the group had to overcome the belief that there is something morally wrong with spending taxpayer dollars to pay rent for homeless people. But the Veterans Affairs Department ultimately agreed to become a part of the campaign, using the strategy to provide housing to more than 20,000 veterans. Some 230 municipal and state governments in 39 states also joined in the effort — including Montgomery, Fairfax, Arlington and the District.
Here are each states’ contributions:
“This County has done many things over the years to help address the needs of our homeless population,” said Montgomery County Council President Craig Rice said in a news release. “The 100,000 Homes Campaign targets a special segment of this population — a population that has been difficult to reach. Through this program, and the steps that are being put in place, we now have a better chance of letting them tell us their needs and then directly working to find housing for these most vulnerable people.”