Some people believe that we can end homelessness entirely. They point to issues like zoning and healthcare as barriers to the cure. They'll often take the definitional route, stating, "if we give homeless people a house, voila, they're not homeless anymore."
Yet, others believe homelessness will always be a part of our communities. Yes, we can manage it. Yes, we can alleviate it. But eliminating it isn't in the cards. There is evidence that it's been an issue as far back as Ancient Rome.
There will always be someone in a financial crisis, someone dealing with domestic violence, or someone living with a severe mental illness. Therefore, the risk of homelessness is always present.
But again, at a certain point, it doesn't matter if we can or can't fully solve the problem of homelessness. Either way, the issue requires us to take action. After all, think about how much we invest in, as a community and individually, that's "unfinishable."
We repave roads when we know potholes will inevitably reappear. We mow our lawns and pull weeds despite them growing back. We exercise to get healthy and then exercise to maintain our health. Some efforts never stop, and the fight against homelessness must be one of them.
Whether it's solvable or not, what matters is that we're taking meaningful steps to help those currently experiencing homelessness and building better social systems to prevent it. Those steps for alleviating or solving homelessness in Erie County are going to require a multi-pronged approach, one that includes:
1. Assistance programs
Permanent supportive housing is one of the most vital assistance programs for people experiencing homelessness. However, it is absolutely critical that these housing programs are paired with supportive case management. Without the combination, finding stable housing is like starting a fire with wood and no matches.
Case management services help inspire independent living and help people reconnect with their community. Ideally, these programs aid formerly homeless people in finding healthcare, treatment (if applicable), and employment. Thankfully, Erie has a variety of these programs through the Great Erie Community Action Committee (GECAC), Erie County Department of Human Services, and Erie United Methodist Alliance (EUMA).
“One of the biggest resources is subsidized housing. The second is affordable housing,” says Peter. “We need to improve partnerships with our landlords… We just created a landlord incentive program that provides signing bonuses for serving people in our housing program.”
2. An Optimized Crisis Response System
A crisis response system identifies people experiencing or who are at risk of experiencing homelessness and connects them with housing assistance and services. As the National Alliance to End Homelessness puts it, the goal of a well-optimized crisis response system is to "make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring." The good news is that Erie launched its own coordinated entry system in 2018.
3. Educational Connections & Career Pathways
Education can help prevent and mitigate the impacts of homelessness. So as to avoid generational homelessness, it's critical that children and young adults understand the value of a good education and are given the resources and tools to make the most of it in their community. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) recommends that educational institutions have strategies in place to:
- Improve identification of children experiencing homelessness.
- Eliminate program enrollment barriers and provide.
- Improve access to and retention in education programs.
- Educate homelessness assistance providers about the laws, programs, and practices under those laws designed to increase access to early care and education.
While the USICH mentions building career pathways as a means of pulling people out of homelessness, it's also a powerful way to prevent it in the first place.
Community programs that connect people at risk of homelessness with livable-wage-paying employers are essential. Further, they need to teach people how to balance finding and maintaining employment with other challenges, such as transportation, child care, and medical conditions.
4. Community-wide coordination
A coordinated and collaborative system is needed to end homelessness, or at the very least, ensure it's nonrecurring. More specifically, organizations need to collect data on their local homeless population. This data should be available to all community stakeholders to inform decision-making, resource allocation, and program development. As a Continuum of Care, The Erie County Home Team is responsible for the local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), an information technology system that collects client, program, and system-level data.
But collaboration is often challenging between nonprofits. Part of the reason is that the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants that fund organizations are incredibly competitive. "HUD will say to you, this is a competitive grant… it doesn't exactly engender cooperation between your shelter and mine," says Darrell. "These are some of the honest challenges in Erie… That's why the Home Team was started, and I think it's a good idea."
Despite those challenges, Darrell shares that Erie has done an incredible job exploring new solutions, opening up new funding streams under Mayor Joe Schember, and collecting accurate data through the HMIS.
“I think there has been a lot more collaboration since the pandemic,” says Peter. “
5. Higher wages
The poverty rates (24.7 percent) in Erie are abysmal. The minimum wage ($7.25/hour) is less than half of what’s considered a livable wage ($15.79) for a single adult with no children. A living wage is a level of income that allows individuals or families to afford adequate shelter, food, and other necessities. Additionally, a living wage should ensure that no more than 30 percent of income goes to rent.
Subsequently, even if a person has a job, they could still be on the brink of homelessness or actually homeless. The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that there is not a single state, metropolitan area, or county in the U.S. where a worker earning the federal or prevailing state or local minimum wage ($7.25/hour) can afford a modest two-bedroom rental home at fair market rent by working a standard 40-hour work week.
It can be challenging for business owners to raise their wages. However, doing so could not only alleviate homelessness, but it could also attract and retain talent. The Jefferson Educational Center also found that forming public-private partnerships that focus on supporting businesses that pay a livable wage is essential to minimizing poverty rates.
6. (Rapid) Housing
When people enter a shelter and are not currently in the HMIS, they're evaluated with the Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (SPDAT). "A SPDAT basically measures your level of vulnerability. The higher the number is, the more programs they're eligible for and the more resources are available to you in the way of rental assistance," Darrell explains.
Rapid re-housing provides short-term rental assistance and services. Emerging research suggests that those receiving rapid re-housing assistance are homeless for shorter periods than those assisted with shelter or transitional housing.
"That's really the path for homelessness to permanent housing is through one of the rapid rehousing programs," says Darrell. Yet there is a caveat: When those programs aren't wrapped around support services, they're unlikely to result in permanent housing for someone with mental illness, a history of substance abuse, and/or no career training.
Rapid re-housing is offered without preconditions such as employment, income, or sobriety. The thought is, by eliminating barriers, people experiencing homelessness will be better equipped to address the challenges that led to their situation in the first place. While rapid rehousing has undoubtedly received its fair share of criticism as being a "quick fix," it does seem to be one most successful methods of ending chronic homelessness.
"I'd like to see more money put into support services than paying rent," notes Darrell. "I think those support services would keep people housed longer."