By Steven Rodriguez
For millions of homeless Americans, the concept of having a place to call home is central to escaping the vicious cycle of poverty. While the over 2.3 million homeless in this country are often thought of as one large group, there are important sub-groups, which include veterans, youths, families, as well as the chronically homeless. The National Alliance to End Homelessness defines the later group as those suffering from “…long-term, or repeated homelessness, often coupled with a disability.”
One of the chief challenges to federal programs has been determining the best strategies to combat the widespread issue of chronic homelessness. In recent years, the approach has focused on long-term housing programs for the chronically homeless, in addition to the overnight shelters that make up the safety net. This shift was very much influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s widely-read article “Million Dollar Murray” in The New Yorker, which states that the chronically homeless (the minority) are actually the most important group to focus on. These end up costing hospitals and shelters tens of thousands of dollars, while these expenses rarely have any enduring benefit to the homeless person. Plans had to shift away from maintaining people in this cycle to ending it through housing programs that provide long-term stability.
Federal: Some of the key federal programs include the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicaid. Despite the economic recession of 2008, additional funding for homelessness was created under President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.
Mercer County: As the Executive Director of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, Herb Levine has been working to find ways to end homelessness in the Trenton area. Levine says his organization is able to work with various groups and agencies within the state, county and community to identify and plan to distribute funds in an efficient and collaborative manner. This “complex web of funding sources” as he described it, is primarily a mix of federal, state and county grants. A smaller percentage is gathered from the United Way and local businesses.
While this money is distributed amongst a number of programs, including various homeless shelters, the chief focus is providing housing vouchers and service for the chronically homeless.
In this area, the Alliance has been quite successful, with Greater Trenton Behavioral Health Care moving 85 people into apartments, with plans to provide 60 more housing vouchers to community agencies in the near future. Levine noted that homelessness has remained relatively steady in Mercer County, a positive contrast to the gradually rising national figures.
While goals to end chronic homelessness in the United States in the next decade or so may seem a bit lofty, there are signs of real progress; communities across the U.S. are engaging their citizens to do their part and help to combat the issue, government funding has remained steady, and more people are starting to understand the scope of this problem.
Ultimately, the battle against homelessness returns to the idea of having a home. A home provides a sense of identity and stability that is central to a sustainable lifestyle. It is this end goal that all federal, state, and local policy strives to achieve.