Victories in reducing homelessness provide social services model
In the last five years, Connecticut decreased annual levels of homelessness by 34 percent, while many states saw dramatic increases in this terrible problem.
This is good news for those who are no longer forced to live on the streets or in our homeless shelters. And it’s good news for our communities, whose residents pay needless costs, repeatedly, when emergency services, hospitals, jails, and schools seek to address the symptoms of homelessness without addressing the cause.
The story of how we got here – how Connecticut moved the needle toward ending homelessness even given our state budget challenges – offers important lessons for other areas of social service delivery. What we learned in efforts to combat homelessness will be important going forward, given the looming state budget deficits that will require continued creative thinking.
So what have we done to produce these results? There is no single solution and efforts to end homelessness are the product of a massive team effort under the rubric of the Reaching Home Campaign. That said, here are two critical ways we have reshaped the system:
There are hundreds of social service providers across the state working to end homelessness – street outreach, emergency shelters, and housing. Prior to 2015, these providers worked in separate siloes with no real coordination.
One client might receive support from multiple providers while another client might get no help at all. Our federal funder (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) led the way in forging coordination by requiring that all participating agencies receiving funding develop systems to coordinate their work. State funders, led by the Department of Housing, followed suit, and nonprofits, including the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, helped build the framework to make this happen. These providers now work in community teams and as a result eliminate duplication, increase the impact of available resources and help more people.
The eligibility for assistance can outpace available resources, sometimes by a wide margin. As a rule, most of our systems do not allocate these resources thoughtfully, but rather assist clients on a “first come, first served” basis.
Using this approach, we might be serving those who are “eligible,” but we fail to consider who needs service the most, or the most urgently. In my experience working with the homeless, this is true across a range of our systems – from mental health to substance use treatment, childcare to employment services.
To improve the impact of homeless system resources, we prioritized services and housing resources for people experiencing “chronic homelessness,” (homeless a year or more and living with a severe disability, usually a mental illness). This is arguably the population of homeless who need our help most, living as they have for months or years on the streets. At the same time, they are the population that tends to incur high costs cycling through expensive public systems like jails and hospitals. We can stop that cycling, and save communities wasted expenses, when we offer this population the housing and supports they need.
It’s hard to determine in many social service areas how to think about “highest need.” But it’s not impossible to develop criteria which can help us to focus efforts and ensure there is real impact.
Hard-working nonprofits that largely make up the homelessness response system signed on to these challenging changes not only because they were required, but because they started to see their clients better served.
It is difficult to make this kind of change, but by doing so we found that we have been able to serve our collective mission more effectively and deliver a better return on the public investment. Given the state budget outlook, we need to do more of just that – across the board – in years to come.
Lisa Tepper Bates served as the Chief Executive Officer of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness from 2013 until this month.