Driving Change (DC): Today I’m talking with Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, and widely recognized as one of the most influential people in homelessness policy in America and around the world. Rosanne, I wanted to start by looking at this COVID crisis and how that has changed your outlook. Because when we last spoke prior to the crisis on the eve of the pandemic, reaching America, you were talking very ambitiously about the possibility of achieving zero homelessness in America. How How does it feel now? Is that still something you believe could happen, or, as COVID really changed your thinking?
Rosanne Haggerty (RH): Well, Matthew, it all depends on what we choose to do next. The basic awareness that homelessness is a solvable problem is as timely and even more urgent than ever. We now have 13 us communities that have reached what we call functional zero, meaning your community can consistently stay ahead of any new homelessness and make homelessness increasingly rare and brief. That’s true in 13 communities that have gotten there, and another, more than 50, who are showing steady reductions now, even through the pandemic. So this is really a matter of the way communities are organized to do the work. And I’ll just say, one of the things that has been happening during this time of COVID-19 communities, not just the 81 cities and counties we work with across the country, but many have seen that in the face of the clear urgency of getting people to safe accommodations. And with some targeted infusion of federal funds through FEMA and the last stimulus program, communities have rapidly housed many people who’ve been languishing in shelters or on the streets housed in quarantine and isolation units. So on the one hand, we have evidence that if communities are organized in the correct way, that they are using data to drive their understanding and interventions. And they are actually accelerating, getting people into housing, that you can see reductions in homelessness, even amidst the crisis. That said, we have to keep doing that. And we are now at this moment where across the US, people are seeing the supplemental unemployment checks, lapse, eviction moratoria lift, but we have had this awakening to the fact that we can get this work done. communities can work together in new ways. They can spend their money differently. And we can choose to do that. So we can make a similar choice going forward. This is a solvable problem.
DC: But just to sort of start with the general sort of context of COVID, though, to what extent you’re has that worsened the the the extent of the homelessness problem, or is it that the moratorium on evictions is really, you know, so delayed? What could be a flood of people onto the streets?
RH: We don’t yet know the consequences of the economic crisis, Matthew, because that has been cushioned by the supplemental unemployment and by the eviction moratoria across the country and at the state level. So we have seen, in fact, we have collaborated with housing economist at Columbia to try to get the best projections, locked in with respect to what history tells us about unemployment related homelessness, and it’s a pretty frightening story that we could see upwards of 40% increases in homelessness without serious government intervention. That is, you know, that that is the key factor here. So, while we have seen enormous disciplined progress and gains, interestingly, on reducing homelessness that existed prior to the pandemic, yeah, we are at this moment of what choice Are we going to make? Are we going to let people without supplemental support, you know, fall into homelessness as a consequence of the economic crisis, or are we going to step up?
DC: So there’s this two pronged approach seems to be one is the macro policy response? Is the government gonna put money Furthermore, auditoriums, etc, etc. into addressing this problem, and then there’s also what you do differently on the ground because obviously you’re working with certain communities that maybe have a backing the national trend on homelessness because they’ve been able to make real progress. How do you see you know, the The the blend and combination of that macro approach and the micro approach, what’s the most immediate priority that we need to get done?
RH: locally, this period of time has really proven out that it’s the way communities organize and work, collaborate, use data, understand a dynamic problem has to be met with dynamic tools and an iterative approach, whether you’re trying to bend the curve, or flatten the curve on the Coronavirus, or drive reductions to zero on homelessness, communities just need to work in a deeply collaborative data driven way, kind of full stop. So that needs to continue. And I think the policy innovations that can support that are just a much heightened recognition of the role of quality, real time data, and with the communities that have done best by their populations period. And certainly by those experiencing homelessness are the ones who are on top of like, what’s true, where’s the problem moving and changing? Where do we need to, you know, double down on on mitigation strategies? Where do we need to move the ventilators? How do we need to actually control what’s happening in real time? I think what we’ve seen in the built for zero communities is that discipline, the quality data, that discipline way of working, has helped them just as leaders in their communities bring that kind of rigor to coping with the entirety of the emergency. So that’s got to continue irrespective of what the federal government does. But as an economist friend pointed out the scale of the risk now, with respect to people who’ve never experienced homelessness, now possibly being at the edge because of the the ending of the eviction moratoria, and very significantly the end of the unemployment supplement, that the scale of that risk is such that local communities alone can handle that. And so we really do need the federal government to step up, we’re still waiting on what’s going to happen with the next stimulus. And and whether there will be one, which seems just an impossible scenario that there wouldn’t, but both need to be true. We need to have, you know, the, the cushion in place for 10s of millions of Americans who are at risk of just deepening poverty, not just homelessness. But we also just need to continue to collaborate, use data for decision making, like our lives depend on it locally, because they do.
DC: They made a very interesting point, important point that these communities that you call built for zero communities have actually been more resilient in responding to the general health challenge of COVID. Because they had in place, the systems that write about them to really manage the homelessness problem, can you just talk a bit about what what what the policymakers need to do to create a bill with zero community?
RH: Well, built zero is the name of this initiative. And it’s totally the coalition of the willing and it’s an opt in decision that leaders need to make. And the thing is, it needs to be a shared decision among mayors or county executives and the leaders of the Homeless Coalition in each locality. And the local veterans admitted, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and local housing authorities are part of that too. That’s the configuration of the team that needs to work together in new ways to drive homelessness to zero. And so communities that grasp that the way they’re working and the lack of, of clear communication of optimizing resources of deep collaboration, if your community isn’t doing that, that is the key to moving forward on on any complex task, you should consider building a draining build for zero. You can go to our website, community dot solutions, but as a principle beyond this particular movement that comes with this kind of support and network. One of the byproducts of this moment and the pandemic Matthew has been a long overdue, really, integration of the homelessness response systems in communities and the public health infrastructure. These, you know, often these were living in parallel spaces. But when you think about where the capability typically lies in a community to think it at a population health level, who are the most vulnerable? Where do we need to be like, out ahead of risk? One of the truly exciting things that’s happening These communities are now walking arms. And I think we will see much more powerful progress on reducing homelessness in the future and communities where those linkages are very strong between public health and homelessness response. And as a policy matter, that’s what I think any Mayor or county executive should be looking to love to have you think about built for zero, but make sure that your public health agency and your homeless response system, understand they’re solving the same problem, and they need to be at the same table.
DC: And what have been your most notable success stories so far of this approach?
RH: Well, just I’ll say even you know, prior to the pandemic, they’re worth 13 communities that had ended chronic or veteran homelessness, meaning their data is, there is so such high quality that you can see the problem in real time, and know that your community consistently now has the capacity to put its resources into preventing new homelessness and quickly rehousing anyone who does experience a housing emergency. And so we have these significant sort of demonstrations of communities ranging from Gosh, I think it’s 90,000 to 2 million able to be at that level of performance and see what’s going on. powerfully, though, even throughout the pandemic, we’ve had a 11 additional communities get to this major shift, like they have redesigned their system, and they’re continuing to drive reductions in homelessness, despite all of the chaos going on. And we’ve had four communities. Now also a new ones get to zero chronic or veteran homelessness. And so in some ways, it’s the it’s the least expected outcome, if you think, oh, everything’s getting worse now, not with your community using this disciplined approach to finding collaborating, you know, driving performance across the community. So that that’s all of these, all of these stories just are enormously compelling, not just for us, but this whole network of communities, who No, this is possible and are really stepping up. And interestingly, I think seeing ways to gain ground by strategically using some of the emergency resources that are coming into their communities because of COVID. And not simply just patching up an emergency response, but doing things like why don’t we buy some property here with some of these dollars, so that we are adding to our permanent housing supplier? Why don’t we use this moment, and some of these resources to invest in some of the infrastructure supports that will keep us gaining ground?
DC: Have there been any significant new innovations as a result of the COVID crisis? I mean, I guess there were a lot of stories in the press about how empty hotels are being repurposed for the homeless, for example, is that something that has has had an impact? Is it likely to continue? You know, once we return to some kind of revival in the hotel industry, if that happens, right?
RH: Well, yeah, you’re absolutely right to point that out. That’s happening in a few places. And that’s the kind of innovation of really yeah, staying clear, clear eyed, and like looking at your data during a crisis, and not just to reacting. So communities that are investing in permanent infrastructure to keep gaining ground, that’s been one innovation, the use of emergency dollars to buy long term assets. I’d say another is this area of of newfound alliance in collaboration with public health agencies, one of the things that, for instance, has been surfaced and is now being we’re helping to spread it, as are many others, as an innovation is an actual kind of formal sort of alert system between local homeless services providers and local public health agencies based on symptoms of COVID. Among those experiencing homelessness, it would probably for those who don’t spend their time in this field seemed like that’s an innovation. But the left that there was so little or no communication between these different systems in the past, was to the detriment of of certainly progress in reducing homelessness and also has allowed in many communities, diseases that otherwise don’t even exist much more here like typhus or or hepatitis A, you know, vulnerable people living in terrible conditions are experiencing homelessness. have often been those who have highest rates of these conditions or tuberculosis or have HIV AIDS. The fact that we’re now seeing these bridges and these communication channels being built between homelessness response systems and public health is going to be very important for the future. And even though there is not like this, like silver bullet, the fact that this breakthrough has happened is going to be very important for the field. I’d say there’s also Matthew’s been more of an invitation to innovation than perhaps a single set of, of innovations. But there has been this awakening to the fact that congregate shelter is just a bad idea. If you can’t keep people safe in like, a big crowded room or in a places that I think in the past communities thought, Well, you know, we’re at least keeping people, you know, off the street. Well, that’s not good enough anymore. And I think the realization that stable basic housing has, it has a public health benefit for everyone. And and certainly for the most vulnerable, is something that’s going to stay with us. And we’ll invite, I think a different consideration of how we respond in a physical sense to homelessness and drive more investment toward housing.
DC: So finally, if you’re a policymaker, anywhere in the world, really thinking about this homeless, challenge, homelessness challenge, what would be your number one piece of advice to somebody who really says okay, to get them from feeling overwhelmed by the problems, believing that they could actually get to zero chronic homelessness?
RH: I think that the main, no barriers often Matthew just moving from this is overwhelming to, of course, this is solvable, we’re in this moment of all of us across the world experiencing this enormous threat. And we really don’t have a choice about whether we face into it, and how we learn to master it and how we test our way through it. And how we change our behavior in response to new information, I would say at the moment is to invite policymakers to see that homelessness looks really simple compared to that. But it really involves a lot of the same thinking, how do you break this problem down? It’s not in no community in the United States, and in the in the global north and no community does homelessness represent a fraction of 1% of the population. And yet we’ve convinced ourselves, it’s is overwhelming as a pandemic. It’s a tiny problem with dreadful health and emotional and spiritual and economic consequences for those who suffer it. And I think one of the other things that we just are now realizing, just needs to happen, certainly in the United States is to face into the reality that overwhelmingly, those experiencing homelessness in our country are black and Native Americans. And if we’re serious about, you know, really stepping up to this moment in history and what it’s demanding of us in terms of really acting, you know, for the common good of all and and dealing with these deep inequities in our society. Homelessness is a powerful place to begin. It’s not a huge problem, but it has devastating consequences for those who do endorse it.
DC: And to wrap up, the COVID crisis has actually reinforced your conviction that it will be possible it is possible to get to zero homelessness in America and around the world.
RH: It absolutely is. And let me just leave you with a story of like the big possible idea in the UK. And this is really a story of leadership there. The and having someone prepared to push the right choice in front of the Johnson government. There has been this everyone in campaign 15,000 people who’ve been living on the streets of the UK, moved into temporary accommodation, like within two weeks, and it was really just the decision the the direction, letting each local council know that this was their job and that there was not huge new resources behind it. But in one fell swoop, the UK has more or less ended street homelessness and now the the work is moving people into housing from there, but being in touch with colleagues in the UK, and wishing that we had that same kind of national imperative and direction here. What I’ve been hearing more and more is that communities could find out could find a way doing this, when they were told that this was the job to do as opposed to respond to homelessness, manage homelessness, try to keep people from dying of homelessness, keep people experiencing homelessness fed, when the job became endless move people off the street where they are in harm’s way. Communities found they could do it. And that I think, is the story, certainly across the global north. And I’ve also been in touch with colleagues and some global South contexts. And they have seen powerful shifts in their own consciousness around what it’s possible for them to do. And it it does tend to be at this intersection of if it’s a public health problem, all of a sudden, it involves all of us. And so that reframing is an important legacy, I believe a legacy that’s already information.
DC: Real, not positive, optimistic note. Rosanne Haggerty, thank you very much for talking with driving change. Thank you,
RH: Matthew. Thank you.
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