A Race Worth Winning

Posted on March 20, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

This past weekend, I was reminded again of how breathtakingly beautiful our nation’s capital is. I was in Washington on Friday and Saturday (along with 40,000 other runners) to participate in an annual half-marathon event, and the city was awash in the colors and smells of spring.

Between the beautiful monuments, historic stone buildings, meticulously-tended outdoor spaces, upscale shops, and affluent residences, no one can deny that Washington is indeed a lovely city. At least on the surface. In stark contrast to its majestic exterior, however, is a dark underside of homelessness. In fact, according to the NAEH’s State of Homelessness in America report released in January 2012, the rate of homelessness for Metro Washington exceeds the national rate (24 homeless individuals per 10,000 in D.C. compared to a national rate of 21 homeless individuals per 10,000) and is almost three times the rate in Richmond (9 homeless individuals per 10,000).  Moreover, while the homeless population decreased nationally, it increased in the District of Columbia.

In past years, it was not at all uncommon to see homeless people sleeping on benches and huddled on sidewalks along various points of the race course, especially in some of the downtown areas and working-class neighborhoods east of the Capitol. It has always caused me some measure of discomfort to run past them as if they were just another feature of the scenery, and frankly, I did not look forward to seeing this again over the weekend.

But this year, strangely, I did not see a single homeless person. Although I hoped for an optimistic explanation (“Breaking News: D.C. Solves Homelessness!”), I suspected a less cheerful reality. No doubt the race organizers considered the negative PR of exposing 40,000 out-of-town visitors to the “unsightliness” of homelessness and “sanitized” the area accordingly with a beefed-up police presence. One problematic consequence of the Occupy Movement has been that more and more urban areas choose to “deal with” their homeless problems by sweeping homeless individuals out of sight and passing laws that criminalize their visibility. It seems that the easy short-term quick-fix options are almost always selected over the harder long-term solutions, even though “easy” comes at a heavy price – both financially and in human costs.

So I had to conclude that the race organizers had consciously and callously prioritized my need to run guilt-free through a sterilized landscape…at the expense of the hundreds of individuals for whom homelessness is an ongoing nightmare. I felt a little discouraged about all this as I headed back down 95. Now more than ever, research is telling us that we know how to end homelessness, especially the most persistent form: chronic homelessness. Consider this excerpt from page 13 of the above-mentioned 2012 State of Homelessness Report:

Another notable decrease was the 3 percent decline in chronic homelessness. This decrease is consistent with a trend that began in 2007….A primary reason for the downward trend in chronic homelessness is the increasing use of permanent supportive housing, an intervention shown to be effective and cost effective in ending chronic homelessness.

But then I stopped to get coffee in Garrisonville and a Washington Post headline caught my eye: “Home At Last, For Good: District Opens New Permanent Housing Complex for Women on the Streets At Least a Year.”  For us at Virginia Supportive Housing, the article chronicles a familiar story – and a hopeful one.

Speaking about D.C.’s growing dynamic of chronic homelessness, Human Services administrator Fred Swan says, “We wanted something more sustainable….The long-stayers just kept coming back, and it was a cycle that needed to be broken.” The article continues: “With that in mind, officials implemented a ‘housing first’ model, focused on offering long-term sustainable housing first and then treating health or social issues – a concept that has been used nationwide.” The article concludes with a quote from one of the featured tenants, Gail Faulkner: “You see these,” she said, dangling the silver apartment keys next to her face. “Nobody can take them away.”

So while no American city – Richmond and Washington D.C. included – has succeeded in solving homelessness (yet), there is good news on the horizon, and that good news, for Gail Faulkner and so many of the people served by VSH, is permanent supportive housing. Study after study concludes that increased availability of and access to permanent supportive housing will be absolutely critical to our efforts to reduce and end homelessness once and for all.

I don’t know how many years I will continue running the D.C. half-marathon, but I like to think that one day in the not-too-distant future, the absence of homeless individuals will not be because we chased them into the shadows….it will be because there aren’t any. By taking slow deliberate steps in the right direction, we can win this race.

Hopeful, Optimistic….But Also Impatient

Posted on February 15, 2012

Three nights ago, the temperature plunged down into the teens and the wind chill factor was even colder than that. Most of us passed the night in the warmth of our heated homes. But according to Homeward’s most recent Point in Time Count, almost 1000 people in our very own community did not have a home in which to sleep that night and more than 100 were forced to sleep outside in public parks, on fire escapes, and in encampments by the river.

Statewide, more than 9,000 Virginians experienced homelessness that night according to estimates by Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development.  Can you imagine sleeping outdoors in that kind of cold? The truly sad part is that we know how to fix homelessness and a solution is within our reach. It’s called permanent supportive housing.

“Permanent supportive housing works,” states John Dearie, board member with the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, in his recent RTD op/ed piece. “Eighty-five to 100 percent of the tenants in…Virginia’s PSH programs have not returned to homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently identified the emergence of PSH programs as the single most important factor in reducing chronic homelessness in America in recent years.”

Even more important, according to Dearie, is the fact that the permanent supportive housing model delivers dramatic savings to the community. “A 2010 analysis of Virginia Supportive Housing’s A Place to Start initiative showed that the program had dramatically reduced this hopeless and costly cycle [of chronic homelessness], saving the local community $320,000.”

This is really good news because it means that political consensus is possible. At a time when politicians can’t even agree on the color of the sky, Democrats and Republicans are joining forces to support legislation that paves the way for policy amendments, funding, and eventually, new PSH developments.

Dearie goes on to say, “Much more work remains to be done. According to VCEH, another 7,000 PSH units are needed to end homelessness in Virginia. That’s a daunting number, but it can be achieved. And Virginia has already made impressive progress.”

At Virginia Supportive Housing, we are hopeful and optimistic…but we are also impatient.

Hopeful because we know that permanent supportive housing is what solves homelessness and we work toward that solution each and every day.

Optimistic because advocacy for this evidence-based model is slowly but surely growing, both across the state and across the nation.

Impatient because, for the people who are sleeping outside in frigid weather, that solution can’t happen soon enough.

To read John Dearie’s complete op/ed piece, click here.

To read what the National Alliance to End Homelessness has to say about permanent supportive housing, click here.

To find out more about the work of Virginia Supportive Housing, click here.
To support VSH, click here.

Subscribe to Our E-Newsletter