The goal to prevent and end homelessness is ongoing across the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 552,830 people in the U.S. experienced homelessness on a single night in January of 2018. Over half of those that experienced homelessness did so in one of the nation’s 50 largest cities.  Reducing the number of individuals that are experiencing chronic homelessness calls for an evidence-based, compassionate, and strategic approach.
The numbers demonstrate that there is a crisis for those who are experiencing homelessness as well as the cities affected. Previously, poverty and unemployment were regarded as the leading cause of homelessness. However, we now know the issue may include several complex factors. A large number of individuals experiencing homelessness are also struggling with a disability, which can include a mental health or substance use disorder. HUD defines a chronically homeless individual as “an individual with a disability who has been continuously homeless for one year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years where the combined length of time homeless in those occasions is at least 12 months.”
The solution to chronic homelessness requires a comprehensive plan that provides housing as well as person-centered support services to an individual.
Many cities have attempted to mitigate the issue using punitive measures such as making areas unusable by adding armrests to park benches and spikes to ledges. These punitive measures do not work and largely miss the point. Solutions that include arrests and repeated trips to the emergency room have little effect on the problem, but instead cost the city money and resources.
Jason Batten is a Program Developer with Ascension Recovery Services and was formerly the Program Director for one of the fastest growing recovery drop-in centers serving people experiencing homelessness in the state of WV. Batten worked extensively with individuals experiencing homelessness in various shelters and programs and is familiar with the complexities of trying to solve this issue. Regarding finding solutions to the homelessness issue, Batten says, “We want communities to take responsibility because that’s the only way solutions will work. A single agency or individual cannot do it alone.”
There are numerous agencies that have dedicated their efforts to ending homelessness. However, entire communities must take responsibility and focus on housing-based solutions to create the systemic change required to solve the problem. The ability to connect an individual to resources and follow up with them will require agencies, cities, property owners, and individuals to work together.
An intervention utilized by many cities that are trying to reduce homelessness is called housing first. This strategy places an individual into housing, then provides additional services as needed and desired by the person being served. Many times, however, an individual is required to receive supportive services as a condition of being offered a place to live. It has been shown frequently that as a systemic solution, housing first and person-centered care work best. Supportive services, in addition to housing, are critically important but must be offered based on an individual’s stage of change. Those that have a mental health or substance use disorder may continue to lose their housing without treatment and other supportive services.
Support services that are provided for an individual will depend on initial assessment, stages of change, and referrals from community members. After an individual has been provided with a safe and stable home and has developed a trusting relationship with a helping professional based on genuineness, empathy, and unconditional positive regard, they can then be provided resources for community recovery supports. Community recovery supports may include peer recovery, mental health treatment, healthcare services, 12-step meetings, and/or faith-based supports.
An individual may enter the continuum of care from multiple different entry points. This can include medical and clinical services such as harm reduction programs, drop-in centers, mental health or healthcare services, primary care, and others. Workforce reintegration and career development can also be offered and may include education, employment opportunities, trade training, etc. Person-centered services should be utilized, which means the types of care and services should be largely based on the unique circumstances and goals of the individual, and that establishment of a positive therapeutic helping relationship is primary.
The main goal for a city or community interested in solving homelessness is to improve the lives of those who do not have a permanent place to live by emphasizing the responsibility of the entire community to find housing-based solutions. Ascension Recovery Services has had the opportunity to assist large cities in developing solutions to community issues such as substance use disorder and homelessness. Our team understands that the best solutions arise from a combination of data-driven solutions and compassion. Batten explains that many individuals experiencing homelessness are longtime residents of that community. Batten says, “We want cities to realize that people experiencing homelessness in our communities are the people we grew up with. That these people are our neighbors, and that we all bear responsibility to help.”
Contact Ascension Recovery Services to find out how our program development services can help address homelessness in your community.
 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; The 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress; Dec 2018