Something truly incredible happened in the USA about 2 months ago. It was exciting, it was momentous and it was one of the most positive illustrations of the power of community to ever come out of the social safety net basket case that is the United States. It is a pity that it got no coverage in Australia.
On 10 June 2014 – a small, but influential organisation called ‘Community Solutions’ celebrated the 100,000th homeless person to be housed through their program. Yes, 100,000 street homeless people are now in permanent housing. Apparently homelessness can be solved and this is how they did it.
For 4 years (2010-2014) Community Solutions worked with hundreds of communities throughout the United States to implement a process that brought community members together to do some obvious (but until then, apparently not that obvious) things. Community Solutions staff worked with each community to help them identify, survey and follow-up who exactly was homeless on their streets and parks. Yes, that’s right, homeless people were asked their names, background, housing history and health details so that workers and volunteers could work with them to find housing and help provide any ongoing health and other support that was needed after they were housed.
Instead of handing out sandwiches and blankets, well meaning community members asked that seemingly intractable group of people known widely as ‘the homeless’ their names and some details about themselves. They then worked with local housing and support systems to prioritise the most vulnerable into housing as soon as possible.
Apparently after local community members speak with homeless people and find out their names and other information and offer to help them find housing as soon as possible, they find it much harder to just give them a bowl of soup and hope they don’t freeze to death on the streets. Once communities are given a process to follow to identify street homeless people, follow-up with them and make sure their local systems prioritise people into housing – they can reduce and ultimately end street homelessness in their community. All the effort and dollars previously put into overnight shelters and food services can be focussed on a relatively small group (depending on the size of the city or town) to support them to sustain that housing. This works for everyone in the community. Homeless people get to no longer be homeless and local communities get to no longer have homeless people.
No one organisation alone can solve the homelessness of 100,000 people (and by the way that is almost the total number of people who are counted as homeless in Australia) – however, each community and the well meaning organisations and citizens within that community can work on solving the homelessness within their own community. Especially in relation to street homelessness, which in some places may only be 10 or 50 or in some large cities might be 1000 people. The ongoing cost of endlessly servicing a modest number of street homeless people compared with ending their homelessness is obvious and can be significant.
Although about 105,000 are counted as homeless in Australia, less than 10% of that number are street homeless. It is also estimated that at any one time about 25% of our total may be chronically homeless people and not just staying on the street, but perhaps couch surfing, staying with friends or in and out of crisis shelters. That isn’t an overwhelming number. It is completely solvable and thanks to Community Solutions we now know exactly what each community across Australia can do.
Instead of lamenting the problem that is homelessness for a week in August every year, let’s work on making sure we don’t need Homeless Persons Week. Let’s have ‘Celebrating Housing Everyone in our Community Week’.
For more information about the 100,000 Homes campaign: http://100khomes.org/