This month marks the conclusion of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a four-year effort to help U.S. communities find permanent housing for medically vulnerable and chronically homeless Americans. As director of the Campaign for Community Solutions, the New York-based nonprofit that leads the effort, I am thrilled to tell you that participating communities exceeded their goals ahead of schedule. The campaign’s final housing tally indicates more than 31,000 Veterans have escaped homelessness.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) played a crucial role in this outcome by partnering with local community teams to identify homeless Veterans by name and make the process of moving them into housing simpler and more efficient.
In 2011, VA reached out to Community Solutions to help enhance its local outreach to chronically homeless Veterans. With more than 200 local community coalitions participating in Community Solutions’ 100,000 Homes Campaign, we brought together a strong national network on the ground. Local community teams spent weeks walking the streets and combing the woods to find and identify their homeless neighbors. As many as one-third of the Veterans identified were previously unknown to local service providers, despite having been homeless for a year or more.
Veterans who experience chronic homelessness often battle with mental illness, substance abuse, and a variety of other conditions that prevent them from seeking housing from VA. Most chronically homeless Veterans want permanent housing, and when that housing is combined with basic supportive services – and offered without unnecessary strings attached – more than 84 percent of these Veterans remain stably housed. Still, the most vulnerable homeless Veterans do not often present at VA medical centers, which means VA and local outreach teams must find them and help make the housing process as simple as possible for them.
More often than not, this means forging connections with local organizations in each community. VA has the resources to help chronically homeless Veterans move into permanent housing, but local partnerships can act as VA’s eyes and ears, decreasing the chances of chronically homeless Veterans slipping under the radar.
Community Solutions set a joint goal with VA to house 12,000 chronically homeless Veterans through the 100,000 Homes Campaign by the end of 2012. Together, we initiated a game-changing partnership with HUD, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Rapid Results Institute, to help communities transform and simplify the process of moving Veterans from the streets to permanent housing.
The plan was simple: Bring local VA employees together with staff of community groups, from housing authorities to non-profit outreach workers. Once these players were in the same room, they were asked to experiment with restructuring and re-imagining their local housing systems from the perspective of Veterans who depend on them. Teams were challenged to think about where homeless Veterans were getting stuck and where the process had become unnecessarily complicated. After two days of rigorous brainstorming and planning, these local teams set out to improve their housing performance within the next 100 days.
To measure success, teams had to do something that many had never done before – determine exactly how many Veterans they would need to house in order to end Veteran homelessness by the President’s goal of Dec.31, 2015. They worked toward a monthly housing rate that would put them on pace to reach that goal. This monthly benchmarking, which is commonplace in the private sector, became the bedrock of each community team’s improvement strategy, helping unlock more effective and efficient housing processes.
Over the next two years, these intensive improvement events were held in more than 50 communities, and each time the results were staggering. On average, communities doubled the rate they were moving homeless Veterans into permanent housing. Some even tripled their performance, largely without new money. By aligning with VA, communities unleashed improvements that had previously seemed unimaginable.
Partnerships like this helped drive down Veteran homelessness by 24 percent over the last several years. By continuing to reach out and build bridges with local agencies and organizations, VA and local communities can continue to dramatically accelerate housing placement.
That’s why VA recently launched the 25 Cities Initiative, a large-scale effort to help 25 U.S. cities with the greatest numbers of homeless Veterans to coordinate their local systems for housing homeless Veterans. Through a competitive process, Atlas Research and subcontractors Community Solutions and the Rapid Results Institute were selected to help implement the initiative. Together, we are helping communities use evidence-based solutions to rapidly connect homeless Veterans prevention services, permanent housing, health care, jobs, and other supportive services. So far, 23 cities have launched new pilots in conjunction with the initiative, with the final two launching soon.
Today, for the first time since Vietnam, an end to Veteran homelessness is within reach. VA is leading the way by inviting local and national groups to the table and building the broadest coalitions possible in communities across the country. By continuing to emphasize and fund evidence-based strategies and increased community coordination, the department can hasten the end of Veteran homelessness nationwide and move us closer to the day when no American Veteran sleeps on the street.
Becky Kanis is director of the 100,000 Homes Campaign for Community Solutions. Prior to launching the campaign in 2010, Kanis ran the Street to Home Initiative in New York City, a four-year collaborative effort that successfully reduced street homelessness in the Times Square neighborhood by 86 percent. She is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a Veteran of the United States Army, and co-founder of the Social Change Agency.