Tag Archives: Heather Lyons

After months of budget fights, one victor emerges: Rhetoric

By Heather Lyons, Contributing Columnist

Last week when Democrats and Republicans in Congress were out-press-conferencing each other on who was more fiscally competent and who cared more about the American people and our country’s future, I got angry several times.  I yelled at the TV, rolled my eyes at the computer, debated with my partner, and with some inanimate objects too (the inanimate objects are easier sometimes).

Here’s what I know. This was not a fight about balancing the budget. If it were, there would have been serious negotiations about changing the tax code, letting some tax cuts expire, and reducing spending in a variety of Federal agencies, including a real look at defense and major reform of entitlement programs. It was also not about Democrats protecting the more vulnerable. The actions that allowed the Bush tax cuts to continue and the administration’s budget, which came out in February, already indicated that poor and sick people were not a priority (reductions in Community Development Block Grant, Community Health Centers, etc.). Continue reading

Power comes from within, but a splash of color never hurt

By Heather Lyons
Contributing Columnist

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a project on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Downtown Women’s Center is a Day Center and residence with 47 units of permanent supportive housing. They will be opening 71 new units in a few months.

Typically, I don’t like to write about specific programs or organizations. One, I’m a policy and systems person, and at some of my lowest points I’ve been a data person. Two, there are so many groups out there that do good work that it isn’t fair to highlight just one. But this is different. This site visit hit very close to home, and it gave me hope.

There were two of us on the visit. We walked in the unlocked front door and were immediately welcomed by a woman behind the kitchen counter who offered bottled water and a huge smile. Many women had just finished a meal and were sitting around talking and laughing in the dining area.  Other women were camped in front of the TV, and still more women were reading in the back garden oasis. There was a tremendous diversity of women; young women, older women, all races, straight, gay, skinny, not so skinny.

I noticed that a few of the women wore lipstick. Not just any lipstick, but deep reds and bright oranges. Bold lipstick.  Lipstick that says, “I will not cringe; I don’t care what you’ve done to me, life.”

Continue reading

Political rhetoric aside, the progress (for homelessness) is in the planning

By Heather Lyons, Contributing Columnist

The National Alliance to End Homelessness held its annual conference a few weeks ago. Usually, that conference is jam packed with smart people, good ideas, and plenty of learning and sharing.  This year was no different,  except that it was the 10th anniversary of NAEH challenging communities to do 10-year plans to end homelessness.

As many communities approach their five-to seven-year mark of implementation, some of us wonder about the future of 10-year plans. We’ve invested a lot of time, money, energy and risk. So far, a lot of that has panned out. Communities saw reductions of street homelessness, people that supposedly could never be housed successfully were, new housing dedicated to homeless individuals and families was created, services were redefined to actually serve people and not agencies, and government started becoming accountable with its resources.

Admittedly, times have changed since then. The economy tanked and homelessness began increasing again, political champions changed and in some places no longer cared (thankfully, that did not happen in Portland), operational staff changed, and training hasn’t been created on how to do this work, and frankly, in some places, the concepts never really caught on and folks went back to the status quo, with few improvements.

People on the local level had (and still have) some questions for the national folks.  Would a new federal administration disregard the work of a previous one? Is the national interest in comprehensive systems change still there, or is it just about prevention and rapid re-housing? When will the federal agencies do what local agencies have been accomplishing in terms of systems collaboration?

For many folks (330 or so jurisdictions have plans), a lot was riding on what would be said at the NAEH conference.

Three things happened that give me a lot of hope about the future direction of 10-year plans.

1. Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in her keynote to more than 1,700 people from all over the country and parts of Canada spoke directly and candidly about the 10-year anniversary of the 10 year plan. She reminded us of the original framework; she talked about the successes; she explained the external challenges that prevented some successes; and she described some of the work that could have happened differently and what we can do from this point forward to resolve that. I’m not sure if the transcript is online yet, but if it is, it’s worth reading.

2. There is a Federal Plan to End and Prevent Homelessness. It’s good. Really good.  For the first time, there is a roadmap for federal agencies who hold funding and regulatory authority in mainstream housing, veterans, mental health, substance abuse, primary care, labor, education and justice agencies to work together to streamline regulations and provide funding to help end people’s homelessness. The people who are in charge of pulling it together at the federal level know what they are doing, and they didn’t forget about the local work that needs to coincide with the national work.  I know this plan is online, so please check it out if you are interested.

3. There was a workshop for advanced 10-year plans, called “Habits of Highly Effective Plans.” In the spirit of self-disclosure, I got to moderate and present, and I thought it went really, really well.  I have no idea how I did.  In fact, I was one week into a three-week, severe bacterial infection, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I fell over backwards, tripped up the PowerPoint projector and set a small fire.  Point is, the best part of the workshop was the discussion at the end.  There were about 75-80 people, all of whom were involved in 10 year plan work, had interesting experiences to share, and wanted to keep their plan alive.  They had good questions, like “How did you come up with your housing pipeline goal?” and “Were you able to get your mental health and corrections people involved, and how?” Others had good answers to support them. Some were concerned about using catchphrases too much and others were hopeful about the federal plan. What was rewarding was that people were engaged, sharing with one another, and there was a lot of note taking happening (including my own).

I talk about plans to end homelessness a lot.  I think some people would like me to stop or to just have this thing go away.  Here are two common concerns I hear:

Critic: You can’t really end homelessness, and you certainly can’t do it in 10 years.

Me: You can end people’s homelessness and you can start helping the systems work for people instead for themselves.  A plan that is strategic, outcome focused and has a specific timeline is accountable to constituents.  If you have solid goals, you have to try to achieve them. If you can’t achieve them, then you have to explain yourself. This is much more effective than anything we ever had to do before 10 year plans.  If I were an advocate, I’d spend more time asking why certain goals weren’t met instead saying a 10-year plan is useless.

I acknowledge the title can be confusing.  Because a 10-year plan does not mean that a community will be able to avert every crisis an individual or family suffers that might cause them to be homeless. But, a plan can make a community response to homelessness (which is so much better than what was happening before), and it provides the platform for responses to be even better in the future. Setting the stage for ongoing improvement in a chaotic world is a tremendous accomplishment.

Critic: Wasn’t this a Bush initiative?

Me: One, do you honestly think George W. Bush had personal and intimate knowledge about the 10-year plan to end homelessness? Two, oh never mind, this question is a red herring.

There are other critiques, some are useful and informative, but, frankly, others show a lack of vision and hope that we can make a difference. Here’s why I feel that way: done well, these plans are the only practical method to produce the kind of sustainable systemic change that is intended and in fact, needed to end people’s homelessness. There are a lot of technical reasons to do a plan, like blending funding, innovating programs based on research and data, reducing regulatory barriers, streamlining resources, changing perverse incentives and so on. But, if we cannot create a platform for all of us to work on ending homelessness as a city, county, state or country, then we only have ourselves to blame. 10-year plans are about all of us sitting around the table and recognizing our responsibility and agreeing to mutual accountability. No more blaming the shelters, no more blaming the mental health (or whatever) system, no more blaming the advocates, and please, please, no more blaming the homeless people themselves. It’s a lot harder to do that when we have to work with each other on a regular basis. 10-year plans to end homelessness, done well, can make that happen.

Commentary: The bad habits have to go

By Heather Lyons
Contributing Writer

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at spreadsheets lately. These spreadsheets attempt to quantify programmatic need and calculate the resources necessary to develop permanent supportive housing. Many communities, from Los Angeles to Omaha have found this to be a valuable tool.  It provides a roadmap to determine an approach to creating supportive and affordable housing initiatives from a policy and funder perspective. I like working on them, because they are puzzles. We can deal with over a half dozen data sources in some cases, and we usually have to consider more than 20 complicated federal, state and local funding resources.

As I work on one particular worksheet, I have to do what we call “making assumptions.”  Because we don’t always have clear data, sometimes we need to modify a number or percentage in order to account for differences in data sources, and then we need to justify it.  Here’s an example I just typed to explain a percentage in one spreadsheet, “includes med-high acuity adult (adjusted for long-term homelessness).”

Well, what the hell does that mean?  Perhaps the better question is who does that mean.

After the tragedy of Jack “Jackie” Collins, a homeless man who died at Hoyt Arboretum here in Portland, I’m reminded of the vast inequities that people of little or no means and who suffer from untreated mental illness or addictions face. I’m not going to discuss the Portland Police Bureau’s response to the situation. There is enough out there about that. Plus, while difficult in some ways, it’s easy, because it’s a narrow point of view. What is more difficult is creating solutions for people like Mr. Collins. people who may be a “high-med acuity adult (adjusted for long-term homelessness).”

While a lot remains to be known about Mr. Collins as a person, it’s probably safe to assume that he was not healthy, definitely homeless, and may have spent some time in and out of jail and hospitals. Continue reading

Our full potential lies beyond the bias — and ignorance

I only thought these people existed on television, in certain areas of the country, and, in the spirit of full disclosure, in parts of my family. Certainly, not in liberal-loving, alternative-transportation-worshipping, scarf-wearing Portland.

My ears perked up as a group near me in a downtown coffee shop started discussing how government leaders were asking churches to do more for the homeless. They were frustrated, and not because they felt like they were already doing enough, but because they believed that the government leaders probably didn’t even belong to a church. How dare they ask the church to help? And, they said, ultimately, isn’t it really the city’s job to take care of this anyway?

That wasn’t great, but that’s not so bad.  I know I fall in the trap of feeling like others should do more all the time. I tried to withhold judgment — rise above things, as it were.

Then I hear, “So, where do we stand on 66 and 67?” Grumbles all around. “Well, they just did that to show they are doing something without really doing anything.”  And, “I can’t believe they want to raise taxes at a time like this.”  And then this.  “Our church can’t afford to pay more; we’re losing people as it is.” That’s right. A non-profit church is somehow being forced to pay more because of 66 and 67. Who knew?

This is not good. Government should take care of the homeless problem but shouldn’t ask taxpayers to pay for the human services folks need to end and avoid homelessness to begin with. But, again, trying to stay above it all, if we are about embracing diversity, then embracing different points of view are part of that. Right?

Then, the group’s topic turned to the earthquake in Haiti. And, I didn’t know this, but apparently a sudden lateral or vertical movement of rock along a ruptured surface does not cause an earthquake. God does. God also caused Hurricane Katrina. (I had heard rumor of this before). And, you know what the proof is? Look at Mount St. Helens. All we got was a dusting up here.

Wow. My tolerance of this group just went down the toilet, and I began to think of the danger of this kind of thinking. Now, I know enough to know that most people don’t feel this way. But the truth is, many people do, and a lot more people hold biases that will continue to keep people from realizing their full potential. Let’s look at people who are involved with the criminal justice system.

It’s an issue for many people who are experiencing, and who have experienced, homelessness. From the person who has multiple violations due to the sheer risks associated with being on the streets to the person with untreated illnesses who gets caught up in the public safety and correctional systems because of criminal activity driven by addiction or unusual behavior that few understand and fewer know how to treat.

Every year, more than 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons, and more than 7 million people exit local jails in the United States.

Many inmates experience chronic health and/or mental health problems that increase their likelihood of being homeless upon release from prison or jail. The 2005 Report of the Re-Entry Policy Council documents that:

•            More than one in three inmates reports a physical or mental disability;

•            The incidence of serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, is two to four times higher among prisoners than among the general population; and

•            Three out of four inmates have a chemical dependency problem.

A 2006 report from the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that approximately
42 percent of inmates in state prisons and nearly half of all inmates in local jails have both a mental health problem and a substance abuse disorder.

There are real solutions. Permanent housing linked to supportive services increase the likelihood of an ex-offender’s successful reintegration into the community. Supportive housing reduces criminal justice involvement for homeless people with severe mental illnesses, reducing jail incarceration rates up to 30 percent and reducing prison incarceration rates as much as 57 percent.

It’s really a no-brainer — housing and services help people who are ill and homeless avoid incarceration. It’s not easy work, but it doesn’t require an act of God. It’s more humane for people and it’s a much better use of precious public resources.

Prison and jail are among the most expensive settings in which to serve people who are homeless. One study of nine cities calculated the median daily costs for prison and jail at $59.43 and $70, respectively, compared with $30.48 per day for supportive housing.

To get to the solutions, we have to get beyond our preconceived notions of what someone who has criminal justice involvement is about, especially when they have the added pressures of mental illness and addictions. We have to understand that everyone deserves another chance to realize his or her potential. We have to open doors, provide care and allow people to grow beyond their pasts and transform to become accountable, responsible and participatory citizens in our community.

Oh, and vote yes on 66 and 67. Churches won’t pay more. I promise.

By Heather Lyons

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.

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. Continue reading