NASHVILLE, TN – Bakersfield, California, Columbus, Ohio, and Houston, Texas are on the front lines battling homelessness.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve,” said Marcus Salter, Board Member of the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless. Salter’s day job is mediating disputes between renters and landlords at Community Mediation Services of Central Ohio.

November through April the coalition provides warming centers in two Columbus churches. Year round it provides free showers and laundry to the homeless population of Columbus. Last year they got some funding and started providing hot meals, too.

Salter said the Columbus Community Shelter Board developed a homeless prevention network made up of housing providers and mental health agencies. The board aligns housing planning with funding sources and collaborates with 20 local agencies to target resources to address needs of families, seniors, youth, veterans, and others who are chronically homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

“It’s a formalized way to collaborate with each other,” Salter said. He said during the pandemic a lot of people were doing similar work but they were not connected to the big picture or each other. That’s not only inefficient but also can be counterproductive.

“We are resource rich but we’re connection poor,” Salter said. The Shelter Board has increased collaboration between agencies working with the homeless and people at risk of becoming homeless. “It meets people where they are,” he said.

Individuals can call in to report someone is homeless and people can self-report being homeless. The goal is to address peoples’ needs quickly and connect them to resources. 

“We target the resources. A lot of times a person may be homeless but they may only need a particular resource. Sometimes as service providers we want to bombard the whole family or that particular client with a lot of different services where they may only need one of those services,” he said.

Improving service delivery could reduce the demand on Columbus’s five single adult and two family shelters. Most nights they are all full. Providers try to get people the services they need as soon as they come to the shelters.

Marcus J. Salter has more than 20 years experience as an At-Risk Youth Counselor, Youth Outreach Worker and Homelessness Prevention Specialist. Salter works for Community Mediation Services of Central Ohio. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless and is the founder of Keys to Successful Housing.

“Just like any other city we have a three-fold problem here. We have a high eviction rate, we have a homeless crisis, and we have a lack of affordable housing,” Salter said.

Salter reduces the number of evictions by intervening early with mediation. He said he sells reluctant landlords who want to evict low-income tenants on the services his clients receive so they can stay housed, employed, and pay their rent. Sometimes knowing others are invested in a family or individual’s success makes the difference.

Salter said 2035 Columbus households found permanent housing last year; 311 families who called the hotline, got their problem resolved. “They did not become homeless and were diverted away from the shelters,” Salter said.

Ana Rausch is Vice President of Program Operations at Coalition for the Homeless, Houston, TX. Originally from Belém, Brazil, Rausch has more than 22 years of experience in project management & system change implementation.

Houston’s Solution

“We believe that housing (and) supportive services is really the only way to permanently solve homelessness,” said Ana Rausch, Vice President of Program Operations at Coalition for the Homeless, Houston, TX.

Towards that end Houston and surrounding Harris County invested $65 million in the Community COVID Housing Program (CCHP) in July 2020. The goal was to house 5,000 people by October 2022. Already by January 2022, CCHP had housed 7,700 people and elected officials set aside another $100 million to house an additional 7,000 people by 2024.

“I really care about this because to me everyone deserves a roof over their head and food in their bellies,” Rausch said.

The Houston Coalition for the Homeless is the lead agency to ‘The Way Home”, the local homeless response system made up of 100-plus providers, government agencies, and housing authorities.

In 2011, Houston had 9,000 homeless people, the 6th largest unhoused population in the U.S. At that time the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identified Houston as a “priority community” in need of technical assistance.

“We all agreed that we needed to do a better job,” she said.

Rausch said that homeless service providers were spending millions of dollars but leaving a lot of money unspent. They were also operating in silos with no collaboration and weren’t talking to one another.

“We were not looking at our data to make sure that the decisions we were making were in line with what the community needed. And our recidivism was very high.

We all came together to identify the common goals for the homeless response system. The end result is the structure that we have today with the Coalition for the Homeless as the lead organization,” Rausch said.

She said Houston has a Continuum of Care steering committee and an integrated network of providers who are coordinated so they have the greatest impact. That started in 2011.

The network ended Veteran homelessness in 2015. Houston created more than 2,500 units of permanent supportive housing and cut homeless numbers in half. In its annual point-in-time count in January 2022, Houston and three surrounding counties counted 3,124 homeless people, 1622 of those residing in a shelter, and 1,502 people living on the street.

Paula Foster is Executive Director of Open Table Nashville. She has been an adjunct instructor in the Social Work department at Tennessee State University and field liaison for the University of Tennessee’s School of Social Work, Nashville campus. She has been a practicing faculty member at Vanderbilt’s School of Nursing, for the Vanderbilt Program in Inter-professional Learning. She was an AIDS and Homelessness social worker in New York for 15 years.

Nashville’s PIT count was about 2,000. According to Paula Foster, Executive Director of Open Table Nashville, somewhere between 1-2 thousand homeless people in Davidson County found housing last year. The problem is that affordable housing in Nashville is a revolving door. Year after year, the homeless count stays the same.

“For everyone person that goes into housing, someone else comes out of housing.  Because we’re not building more housing, it’s not solving the problem,” Foster said.

“Since 2011 we have decreased our overall homelessness by 63%; we’ve decreased chronic homelessness by 69% and we actually hope to declare functional zero pretty soon; we have decreased family homelessness by 82%,” Rausch said.

The COVID resources that came into Houston’s Continuum of Care network served almost ten thousand people since 2020 and the city was able to shut down 57 homeless encampments.

Nashville shut down some homeless camps, too, but Music City doesn’t begin to compare with Houston. In Nashville’s recently approved budget, $40 million was earmarked for affordable housing.

A June 22nd press release brags that the amount is five times greater than what the city used to set aside in the Barnes Fund for affordable housing. But Cooper’s office doesn’t mention that Nashville would have to spend five times $40 million to equal what Houston has invested in affordable housing in order to solve its homelessness problem.

Rausch said African Americans make up 52% of Houston’s homeless population but are 20% of the area’s population. In 2021 it was 56%. Houston’s homeless support network has moved the needle.

The Houston rental market hasn’t yet hit unaffordable levels but it hit that mark in Nashville and kept right on going. Average rent for a one bedroom is around $1,746/mo. Half of Nashville’s residents are rent burdened and things are not getting better. People are moving out of the city.

Nashville’s Failure

“Can you show me anything that has improved?“ asked Eddie Latimer, CEO of Affordable Housing Resources. Latimer said the majority of units coming on line in Nashville are high end.

“The Mayor’s office has got $40 million but it’s a one time hit and we’re grateful that they put some of it into affordable housing but it won’t hit the street until ’24. For the next couple of years we have no plans to improve the number of affordable bedrooms. It’s pretty much up to the nonprofit industry,” Latimer said.

Eddie Latimer is CEO of Affordable Housing Resources Inc. A Nashville native, Latimer has been helping people become homeowners for more than 30 years.

In an OpEd written December 2021, Latimer laid out the extent of the problem: “According to Greater Nashville Apartment Association (GNAA) there are over 24,000 apartment units currently under construction in the Nashville market…local builders of affordable housing estimate that 700-1000 are affordable. That means 23,000 units are being built for our wealthier citizens.”

“That’s all private money for high returns so it’s easy to get that money. It’s not easy to get affordable money when you’ve got very low returns,” he said.

Latimer said affordable housing is now up to the nonprofit industry and that 700-1,000 units a year is really good for them. “But you’re not going to hit the volume of 3,000-4,000 units a year if we can’t find a way to incentivize the for-profits to help out,” he said.

The price of land is not a problem for the for-profit builders. “They can afford to pay whatever the land costs because they’re going get it back in high end rent. But if you’re to go for moderate or even low rents, the land would make the finance payment impossible to get because it’s so high.”

It’s a knotty problem and the reason why much less is being done in Nashville to house the homeless than in Houston, Columbus, or Bakersfield.

No Chronic Homeless in Bakersfield

Mary Scott is Client Services Director at the Open Door Network in Bakersfield, California. She started working with homeless children as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2004. Scott has worked with homeless adults, victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, people experiencing a mental health crisis and addiction.

“It can be someone like you. Most people are one check away from homelessness,” Scott said.

She works with other collaborators who “put their boots on the ground” to end homelessness. Rausch said they ended chronic homelessness in Kern County in March 2020. Chronic means living one year on the street or experiencing four episodes of homelessness and living with a disability.

 “We accomplished this because we changed our mindset and our beliefs. We now believe homelessness is not an individual issue. Homelessness is a community issue.”

Bakersfield lacks affordable housing. The apartment vacancy rate is 2%. In the 2022 pick count, they found 1603 homeless people. Landlords don’t want to rent to them. That scenario is like Nashville except in Bakersfield and surrounding Kern County, the Homeless Collaborative Committees are a network of organizations that prevent homelessness on the front end.

Mary Scott is Executive Team Leader of the Open Door Network responsible for the program design and development of the aftercare case management and housing programs. She was a part of the team in Bakersfield, CA that reached functional zero for chronic homelessness in 2020. Scott is recognized as a Black Leader in the movement to end homelessness in Kern County.

“Our diversion program ensures that homelessness is brief, rare, and non-recurring,” Scott said. Bakersfield has been successful because the network meets people where they are.

“Their barriers become our responsibility,” she said. Three or fewer homeless people determines a functional zero level of homelessness. The network has partnered with the local housing authority for rent vouchers and the Milestone Project. They refurbish old motels and turn them into multi-family housing. They engage landlords and have their own version of Zillow for their clients.

In practical terms, that means providers solve homelessness one case at a time. Each homeless person has different issues like lacking a social security card so it takes from a few weeks to several months before they are permanently housed. The community knows about and supports the network.

“We hire the homeless clients and they’re cleaning our streets. They see there is an initiative and they’re wanting to work… So they’re seeing that not everyone has substance abuse issues, not everyone’s mentally ill. It kind of gives people hope and inspiration to remember that these are our neighbors. These are our people.”

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