City’s model status shouldn’t mean we rest on our laurels

To the surprise of many, ending homelessness has become an accepted policy in communities across the country — one that has had many successes, and, to be fair, a few failures along the way. While a policy framework is important, the policy itself is not enough. Many people speak the language, but a relative few know what it means. Why? Well, to put it simply, it’s complicated.

It’s more complicated than jobs, its more complicated than housing or even healthcare.  It’s also more complicated than mental health care and substance abuse treatment. It’s more complicated than education, foster care, and starting when people are young. It’s also more complicated than police crisis intervention training and food banks.

Frankly, it confounds Medicaid and Section 8, as byzantine as those systems are. And as difficult as it is to run a good shelter, it’s much more complicated than that.The issue is complicated because it encompasses all of these things. Understanding “ending homelessness” involves understanding causes of long- and short-term homelessness and the experiences of homeless individuals and families. It requires the existing systems that “touch” homelessness to think about what can be done differently to work towards a common goal. It also requires an investment in the long-term solutions and new ways of preventing homelessness.

Ending homelessness means that policies that continue to allow the jails, hospitals, nursing homes, and shelters be the primary housing for thousands of people who are homeless and disabled need to be changed. And housing with integrated care must be part of the solution for the institutions who find themselves the “houser of last resort.”

It means that the foster care system needs focused attention as an intervention point for homeless children and families and young adults. And using that opportunity to find out what really works for them to get out of that cycle.

It means that rent assistance needs to be flexible for families and individuals who are at risk of homelessness so they do not end up in shelters, or if they do, they can be housed again quickly.

It means funding streams and policies need to work together, not in competition and not at odds. Between the City, the County, and the Housing Authority, resources could be married (or at least dating) more effectively to produce the kind of housing and services to end people’s homelessness.

It means political leadership, community leadership, and creativity at every level.

It means that outcomes need to be taken seriously, and accountability is core to the solutions.

All of this would be more effective with the addition of new, flexible resources, designed to create the kind of coordinated housing and service responses that people need to end their homelessness.

Up to this point, this column could describe any community struggling with the issues of homelessness.

For Portland, the creativity and commitment of Portland’s people, its leaders, its government and its effective advocacy and non-profit agencies make it unique in a way that other cities and countries are still looking to Portland as the model to end homelessness.

Now, Portland should follow the lead of other cities like Seattle, and states such as New Jersey (yes, you read that correctly, New Jersey) and create new, sustainable funding that will help end and prevent homelessness for many more individuals on the street and families who are doubled up. In addition to the example of a local levy, such as Seattle, there are other innovative ways to raise revenue.

New Jersey has a special needs housing trust fund.  Housing trust funds are not particularly innovative anymore, but in New Jersey, the fund is targeted to special needs populations, a cause that helped make the fund a reality there. The source of revenue makes it extremely innovative: bonds backed by the proceeds from motor vehicle surcharges for moving violations. That’s right, get a speeding ticket, help the homeless and vulnerable. Perhaps a model based on local violations, in Portland and Multnomah County, could generate some resources to help end homelessness. There are other models worth looking at, as well.

Portland is unique, just like every other community. Yes, that contradiction is intentional.  We all have something to learn from other places and we should not shy away from any opportunity to do more and to do better. We didn’t become a model by ignoring what’s working in other communities, we shouldn’t stop now.

By Heather Lyons

Heather Lyons lives in Portland, and works the Corporation for Supportive Housing’s National Consulting and Training Team to promote systems and policy change to create supportive housing to end homelessness. She currently divides much of her time working in communities as distinct as Wasilla, AK and Los Angeles, CA plus many others throughout the United States. Prior to this position, Ms. Lyons led the City of Portland’s efforts to end homelessness, with numerous partners, under the policy framework of Home Again: A 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.

Author’s disclaimer: The views represented in this column belong to me, Heather. They do not represent the views of any of my current or previous employers.  Though, of course, they are greatly influenced by my experiences over the years, as, should all opinions.

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