Eight Little Words

Posted on March 29, 2011

In many ways, this past Sunday was a day like any other. It may have been unusually cold and overcast for the end of March, but otherwise nothing very earth-shaking seemed to be going on.

And yet, page one of section E of the Sunday Times-Dispatch featured a positively radical heading consisting of four little words in pale gray lettering: “We Can End Homelessness.” And the article beneath it, entitled “Connect Passion and Solutions,” perfectly captures with four more little words the simple yet revolutionary strategy required for achieving this ambitious goal.

It’s simple, according to the commentary’s author Kelly King Horne, executive director of Homeward. We say we want to end homelessness in our community. And thanks to three decades of research, we actually know how to do it. So…what’s the hold-up? Why, as King Horne points out, has the total number of people experiencing homelessness on any given day in our region remained relatively unchanged since 2007?

Does our community lack passion for or commitment to this issue? Quite the contrary. Just a few months ago, Governor McDonnell took the issue head-on when he assigned his own Senior Economic Advisor Bob Sledd to the statewide task force charged with generating an action plan. Richmond also has its own ten-year plan for ending homelessness, and the recommendations in both documents are clearly spelled out. Meanwhile, hundreds of community volunteers regularly demonstrate their deep commitment to the issue by supporting organizations in the regional homeless service providers system as well as city-wide events like Affordable Housing Awareness Week and  Project Homeless Connect.

Didn’t somebody famous once say, “If we don’t know where we want to go, it’s unlikely we will get there”? This is the point King Horne makes when she asks, “What do we mean when we talk about ending homelessness?” How do we define it? How do we measure it? What does it look like? How do we wrap our arms and our brains around something we have been struggling unsuccessfully with for decades?

Once we stop – really stop – thinking about the problem in terms of temporary fixes and start thinking about it in terms of permanent solutions, the answer becomes simple. Get families and individuals out of emergency shelters. Stabilize them with permanent housing as quickly as possible. Connect them to services. Problem solved.

Can it really be that straightforward? We at Virginia Supportive Housing know it can, because that’s what we do every day.  For over 20 years, we’ve been providing permanent housing and support services for homeless individuals and families. And with a 98% success rate, we know our integrated approach to ending homelessness really works. We can prove it.

So now what? King Horne’s inspiring commentary says it all. Connect passion to solutions. Learn more. Read Governor McDonnell’s task force recommendations. Read Richmond’s ten-year plan. Find out what other communities are doing. Then connect. Follow VSH on Facebook. Subscribe to our newsletter. Attend a presentation. Roll up your sleeves. Join our volunteer program. Be a part of our proven permanent solutions.

Once we know where we’re going, it’s likely that we really will get there. We CAN end homelessness!

Be Sure To Watch The APTS Documentary On March 24!

Posted on March 22, 2011

Don’t forget to watch the upcoming PBS documentary featuring VSH and A Place To Start! Virginia Currents is an award-winning PBS news magazine that celebrates remarkable people & places in the Commonwealth. Tune in to WCVE Channel 23 on Thursday, March 24, at 8:00 p.m. for a special Virginia Currents documentary highlighting the successes of VSH’s three-year-old program A Place to Start (APTS).

A Place To Start is an innovative regional program that serves individuals experiencing chronic homelessness and serious mental illness. On January 26, VSH was proud to release a report documenting the outcomes of this highly effective program over a 20-month period. This report demonstrated a 98% success rate in keeping clients in housing and a total savings to the community of more than $320,000!

To read VSH Executive Director Alice Tousignant’s recent blog on this program, click here. To read the RTD article on this program, click here. To support VSH’s proven permanent solutions to homelessness, click here!

A Place to Start Saves Lives and Money

Posted on January 26, 2011

This week’s blog was written by VSH’s Executive Director, Alice Tousignant.

Five years ago, we were all scratching our heads trying to figure out what to do with a certain segment of the homeless population who weren’t getting helped.  These were individuals who were chronically homeless with serious mental illness, many of whom also had a co-occurring substance abuse issue.  Truthfully, many of us had gotten to the point of saying that this specific population chose to be homeless— that was our excuse.  The thing is, no one bothered to ask them what they wanted and if they really did want to be homeless.  The bottom line was that the community, including Virginia Supportive Housing, didn’t know how to help them and we had almost given up trying. 

But then two things happened: we starting hearing stories from around the nation about how chronically homeless people were costing the community money—in other words, even though chronically homeless people comprise a relatively small percentage (about 15%) of the overall population of people experiencing homelessness, they were using a disproportionately high amount of the resources in the community.  We also started hearing about some best practice programs that were successfully housing this population, and these programs were gradually spreading around the nation.

One of these programs was Pathways to Housing, a program that began in New York almost 10 years ago.  After hearing about this program, I must admit I was very skeptical. Not only did I not really believe it could work, it also seemed very costly.  Then PBS did a special on a gentleman called “Footie” who they followed as he entered the Pathways program.  One of the things I vividly remember from the Pathways video was that they talked to individuals who had been living on the streets for years and asked them what they wanted most.  And, guess what they said?  They wanted housing.  They didn’t say they wanted to remain homeless.  That video turned my skepticism to amazement and optimism.  I remember thinking, “We can do this here in Richmond.” 

Working with many partners in the community, including Homeward, the Daily Planet, the Community Services Boards of Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico and the Virginia Housing Development Authority, A Place to Start (APTS) became our Pathways to Housing in Greater Richmond.  The program was launched in late 2007 and began taking individuals off the street shortly thereafter.

APTS places individuals with an extensive history of homelessness and a serious mental illness into permanent housing and wraps intensive services around them.  APTS has a dedicated service team of professionals, including a psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, peer counselor, substance abuse counselor and employment specialist who provide services 24/7.  APTS also has a housing specialist who works with landlords to broker leases, get clients into permanent housing, and ensure that program participants and landlords are getting what they need.  

We knew the program worked because it was evidenced based, but we needed to prove it worked here in Richmond.  So, we undertook an evaluation funded through the Greater Richmond Chamber Foundation and conducted by the Central VA Health Planning Agency.  The research looked at hospital and incarceration data on 50 clients enrolled in the program and measured costs and incidents 20 months prior to program entry and 20 months after.  The research is complete and the report was released today.

While we knew the program would work, we didn’t know how well it would work.  APTS has taken 58 people off the streets in three years with a 98% success rate in keeping people stably housed!  Only one person has returned to homelessness. 

And APTS is saving the community precious resources.  The research shows that the program has saved the community over $320,000 in the first 20 months in hospital and incarceration costs alone. This does not even include other costs, such as ambulance costs, judiciary costs, and the costs to the homeless services system.

Has this program made a difference in the community?  Yes!  In addition to cost savings, it is making a big difference in the community. We’re taking people off the streets. Most of the folks in the program were unsheltered prior to entering the program and were counted as such in the community’s twice yearly count of individuals experiencing homelessness.  In July 2008, there were 148 people who were counted as “unsheltered homeless.”  In July 2010, that number had gone down to 119, which is a 19% reduction in two years!  Some of this reduction is due to APTS.

What about peoples’ lives?  Just ask Jerome who has been in the program for over two years.  He had been homeless for eight years, living in alleys, dumpsters, and under cars and bushes in Richmond. He suffered frostbite in both feet.  “I struggled like a dog.”  He said that he would have died if he had lived on the street one more year. 

And, there are many more stories like Jerome’s. Despite all that we have accomplished through VSH and APTS, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. There are still people living on the streets who need to get into housing and get the help they need, and we can’t do that without the community’s support.  To support A Place To Start and the work of VSH to provide proven permanent solutions to homelessness, click here. Thank you!

No Quick Fixes

Posted on January 18, 2011

Ours is a culture of quick fixes. Learn a language in five minutes a day. Lose 14 pounds in 14 days. Become a millionaire by scratching a lottery ticket. We expect problems that have resulted from years of bad luck and bad habits to disappear overnight, and when one quick-fix doesn’t work, we quickly lose patience and move on to the next “sure thing.”

It was no surprise, then, that when Ted Williams burst into the headlines just after the new year, people expected a quick turnaround. Despite a very complicated history that included a decade of homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and estrangement from family, the expectation was that he “take advantage” of all the opportunities that were flowing his way and “be good.” “Listen to your mom!” is what The Today Show’s Matt Lauer advised him.

It would have been enough to make anyone’s head spin. This individual went from living on the street and panhandling at traffic lights to having a new house and a lucrative broadcasting contract within a week. He went from invisible nobody to special guest on The Jimmy Fallon Show, Entertainment Tonight, and Dr. Phil in the blink of an eye. With so much invested in his success, people needed to believe that a “fairytale ending” was possible. Disappointment was not an option.

Did we really believe it was going to be that simple?

Less than ten days after skyrocketing to fame, Ted Williams was arrested for disorderly conduct and voluntarily admitted into rehab soon after. Of course, public reactions ran the gamut. “It is truly amazing that Americans always get sucked in by people like Williams. The man is a drunk and almost beyond hope.”  “I grew up with one of the best BS artists on the planet…Ted is about one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Others seemed to feel more compassion. “I am very happy that this homeless person is getting another chance in life: most homeless are more likely to win the [lottery] than to be given such a good chance. I wish him well.”

Regardless of whatever opinions and feelings we may have on the subject, one thing is certainly true. Chronic homelessness is not a quick fix. The spiral into homelessness is often exacerbated by a number of complicating factors, and it can take years. It only stands to reason that true recovery would also take years, and some people struggle with it for the remainder of their lives. Three decades of research tells us that people like Ted Williams can’t even begin to heal without the support and stability that permanent supportive housing offers.

So let’s not kid ourselves. The path is long and the issues are complex. If we are going to insist that people turn their lives around, it only makes sense that we invest our hopes and resources in the strategy that offers them the best chance of succeeding. With permanent supportive housing, we might not get that “fairytale ending” that we crave so much, but we can get something even better: an end to homelessness.

A Paradigm Shift For The State Of Virginia

Posted on January 4, 2011

An amazing thing happened at the 2010 Governor’s Housing Conference in November.  Governor McDonnell and his senior economic advisor, Bob Sledd, announced an overall goal to reduce homelessness in the State by at least 15% by 2013, from 8,883 to 7,550.  Why is this so remarkable? Because the Commonwealth of Virginia has actually never established a goal to reduce homelessness before!

Bob Sledd chaired the Homeless Outcomes Advisory Committee that helped to create these objectives and craft this bold initiative. The Committee was comprised of Cabinet level State agency representatives as well as numerous providers. I was lucky enough to be a part of this group, which also sought input from stakeholders throughout the state.

Not only is there an overall goal, but there are specific objectives and strategies that were developed to help meet this goal.  The most ambitious objectives call for a 15% increase in the number of permanent supportive housing units for fiscal year 2012 and 20% for 2013 above the current inventory.  This is an acknowledgement of the importance and success of permanent supportive housing in solving the problem of homelessness for a large segment of the homeless population.

Another specific objective, related to homeless prevention and rapid rehousing, sets a target increase of 10% in the number of individuals and families placed in permanent housing. The fact that we are going to concentrate on prevention and permanent housing as opposed to emergency and short term shelter solutions is extremely exciting and novel. It’s a true paradigm shift for the State of Virginia. Instead of paying to keep our emergency shelter beds occupied, we will be paying to empty them out and keep them empty!

This is a very exciting time for the Commonwealth of Virginia. While there is no additional funding to accomplish this effort, new and existing resources will be prioritized in order to ensure that these objectives are accomplished. With Bob Sledd as the champion leading the charge, I have no doubt that we will accomplish this goal.

As we begin 2011, I am optimistic that the State will do everything in its power to shift its efforts from managing homelessness to preventing and ending it.  VSH is very happy to participate and help lead this effort. To support our proven permanent solutions in the new year, click here.

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