Story of the Week: 11/16/14-11/22/14

Ending Homelessness: My Experiences with the 100,000 Homes Campaign, by Morgan GrayMorgan Gray crop

"If you want to bake a cake, you can read the recipe, follow the directions, and you’ll be able to do it. Going to the moon is a lot harder. But if you know the science, have the materials necessary and are very precise, it can be done. Now, ending homelessness, that’s an extremely complex problem.” This was one of the first things we were told at the 100,000 Homes Campaign.  The name reflects the campaign’s goal of number of people to house nationally (this number has been surpassed). The long-term goal is to end chronic homelessness (those who have been homeless for longer than six months, and those who have been homeless on and off for a longer period of time). Ideally, cities involved with 100,000 Homes will have no chronically homeless people, and will be able to house those who become homeless within a month’s time. Here is some of what I have learned and experienced while taking part with this campaign.

When you are in line to check out groceries, it is run on a first-come first-served basis. You have to wait your turn. An emergency room, however, is triaged. Whoever is at the most risk is attended to first, regardless of how long they, or others have been waiting. Sadly, in most housing programs, those in need are often treated like they are in line at the grocery store, rather than being triaged like in an ER. One of the main goals of this campaign is to change this practice. Some people are only homeless as a result of temporary circumstances, and with rapid intervention, can be rehoused quickly and without great effort. There are others who are chronically homeless, and they are the ones who should be given priority when it comes to dispersing community resources. This is because the longer you are out on the street, the more likely you are to die there. This is especially true if you have substance abuse issues, psychiatric problems or severe health problems (such as HIV/AIDS or liver disease). Having all three is classified as tri-morbidity, which greatly increases one’s risk of dying on the street.

So, the question becomes how do we know who is the most vulnerable in our homeless population? Well, you ask them, of course. Over seventy volunteers over the course of three days went out to survey those living in shelters, on the street and in encampments over the course of three days, and in shifts that often started at 4:30 AM. I was one of the first groups out on Monday morning. Needless to say, it was sobering to find people sleeping out in the cold, on the hard ground. Volunteers surveyed everyone who was willing. We asked them a long list of very personal questions involving their health and history. If they were willing, we also took their picture to assist us in finding them if we found resources available for them to use. Upon returning to the volunteer headquarters, we analyzed their answers and gave them a corresponding score, which reflects their vulnerability. After many long hours, the data is in! There is now a comprehensive list of the homeless population in Burlington, ranked in order of vulnerability.

Now, the challenge is moving forward. All the organizations involved in housing the homeless (COTS, Pathways, etc.) have access to this master list. Now, we have to decide as a community to keep this tool up to date, so that everyone involved will know who is most in need.  Even if this system is implemented, Burlington has a less than 1% vacancy rate. The goal set for Burlington is to house 2-3 of the people on that list. While there are certainly many challenges ahead, I have hope that we can reach these goals. After all, if you can get over 70 people up and out at 4:30 in the morning, people are clearly more willing to do the hard work.

VHCB AmeriCorps is a program of the
Vermont Housing & Conservation Board.

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