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.