Can we really end homelessness?
Laura Zeilinger, Director of the Department of Human Services for the District of Columbia, posed this question to area officials gathered for the 2015 Annual Council of Governments Leadership Retreat in Cambridge, MD.
Although homelessness is a complex issue, Zeilinger said we let ourselves off the hook when eliminating homelessness is viewed as an impossible or intractable task.
COG’s latest point-in-time homelessness enumeration identified 11,623 persons experiencing homelessness in the region. The majority”88 percent”were counted in the District of Columbia, Montgomery County, Fairfax County, and Prince George’s County. Representatives from these jurisdictions joined the retreat to work with officials on identifying opportunities for working together to homelessness.
One collaborative effort already in the works is the Regional Coordinating Council to End Homelessness, launched in the spring by Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser. The newly-formed Council will initially focus on four areas: data sharing, workforce development, macro housing issues, and the interaction of housing and social services.
Uma Ahluwahlia, Director of Montgomery County’s Health and Human Services Department, highlighted her county’s goal to reduce the number of episodes of homelessness a person may experience, the amount of time spent homeless, and recidivism rates.
We want our safety net to be a trampoline, not a water bed, she explained. Persons experiencing a crisis should get the assistance they need, and be launched back into leading their lives successfully. We don’t want people to get trapped by the systems designed to help them.
Renee Pope, Deputy Director of Community Services for Prince George’s County, shared the county’s concern for youth experiencing homelessness and described a system built with the child at the center. It is critical, she said, to build a system around the need, and then find funding to sustain it.
Since 2011, the region has reduced chronic, or long-term, repeated homelessness by 31 percent and veteran homelessness by 22 percent. Focusing on achieving the goal to end veteran and chronic homelessness as a region represents a unique opportunity to demonstrate that with the right strategies and resources, homelessness is a problem that can be solved.
The region currently shares a Veterans Administration medical center, allowing jurisdictions to work together in assisting veterans experiencing homelessness. Multiple jurisdictions in the region have signed the HUD Mayor’s Challenge to end veteran homelessness by the end of the year. Several jurisdictions are also participating in the Zero: 2016 campaign, which aims to end veteran and chronic homelessness by the end of 2016.
The region is also grappling with how to best implement homelessness prevention. Because many people in the region are rent-burdened, this can be difficult to predict.
Dean Klein, Director of Fairfax County’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, highlighted the dynamic between government and the non-profit sector and the importance of being a data-driven agency. Fairfax issues an RFP (Request for Proposals) for the entire homeless system at once to help drive systems change and to aid in retooling existing shelters.
Learn more about the state of homelessness in metropolitan Washington.