Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Focusing on homelessness

Last week, the steering committee of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness made an important decision. Up until then, it had not been determined whether the goal was to end all homelessness in the county in 10 years, or only to end chronic homelessness. Martha Are, North Carolina's homelessness czarina, gave a presentation similar to the one she gave to the Town Council earlier, citing, among other things, Malcolm Gladwell's article on the "power law" dynamics of homelessness. After a healthy discussion, we decided to emphasize the chronically homeless in our planning (but not at the expense of current efforts to help all the homeless).

The 10-year planning processes come out of a federal initiative that is really aimed at chronic homelessness, using a definition issued by HUD: "an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has either been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years."

This definition is less than comprehensive. It leaves out families; it leaves out children. Also it says nothing about the transitionally homeless, those who will experience homelessness for less than a year. And as it happens, all of that is most of the homeless population. Because it seems kind of stingy, there is considerable resistance to the HUD definition.

All over the place--not just in Orange County--there's a noticeable slippage between the goal to "end chronic homelessness," which seems as if it might just be possible, and that of "ending homelessness," which can only be what judges and law professors call aspirational. Of course, it would be great to end homelessness. At the same time, there's much to be said for a goal that is realistic.

I think the committee made the right decision to focus on chronic homelessness. We may not like the HUD definition, but it is what it is, and to an extent, we are following the money. Further, as Martha Are and others are bringing real-world evidence to demonstrate, programs that start by getting the chronically homeless off the street are having better success in attracting funding to respond to all levels of homelessness.

Representing Mayor Kevin Foy, last month Adam Schaefer attended a National Summit for Jurisdictional Leaders on ten-year plans to end chronic homelessness held in Denver. More on that conference from the front page of today's Times.

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