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Plain Zero Part 1

Did you see the recent story about Vegan hot dogs? Some of those tested were found to have several ingredients that were neither vegan, nor particularly hot dog-like, including human DNA (which is really weird). I’m not a vegan, but if I were, I would be asking some questions about this. Particularly given the fact that I had chosen veganism for specific health, moral, or ethical reasons. What’s this have to do with ending homelessness? A lot, I think. I chose this work (like you may have, I presume) based on specific moral or ethical reasons. I believe I have a debt to those I serve and a job to accomplish. I believe that the clock is ticking and people’s lives are potentially in my and my staff’s hands. I think that nothing replaces the need for expediency, diligence, and forthrightness in conducting this work. I believe that housing is key to ending homelessness. I accept no substitutes.

There are few things that I abhor less than the constant juxtaposition of practicality and bureaucracy in our work to end homelessness. Sometimes, federal, state, or local edicts make abundant logical sense in our pursuit to end homelessness and other times it is obvious that edicts issued are far more rooted in political expediency than the expediency of saving lives. Worse yet, they oftentimes indicate a complete disconnect between the reality that people are experiencing on the streets than the pervasive mythology of what homelessness is, or might be. Even worse yet, they often create barriers to our ability as agencies to deliver the most logical and effective response. I’ve worked for many organizations where every time some staff person committed a transgression that was harmful, additional policies were put into place that hamstrung their coworkers. What should have happened? They should have been fired on the spot. Agencies and the persons in them are already operating under the yoke of urgency and responsibility in ending homelessness (or should be), the added yoke of paying the debts of the stupidity that surrounds them seems a bit like a penance that shouldn’t need to be paid by all.

Let’s address some specifics:

  1. USICH Criteria and Benchmarks for Ending Veteran Homelessness: All in all, not a horrible document, but some finer points should be further examined. Namely, the encouragement to document each offering of housing to a homeless veteran. Makes sense, correct? Agreed. But, it is clearly geared as a “gotcha” move toward those who are not offering housing. This is a good thing. But for many agencies it may become a cumbersome addition to their work, and largely redundant. The good organizations are already offering housing. They’re doing street outreach, rapid rehousing, and permanent housing correctly. Housing first is a foregone conclusion for them. Organizations not rooted in these concepts should not have federal money. Period. HUD, for their part, has done a fabulous job of empowering Continuums of Care to take a critical look at performance and move money from the places where it is doing no one any good to the places who are getting it done. I think this should be an across the board strategy for all federal funders.

  2. Programs for Homeless Veterans: We, as the Balance of State CoC in West Virginia, are tasked with building a system to end homelessness. We are glad to do so. The Veterans Administration accounts for an enormous percentage of the funds available to end homelessness. At the Federal level, the VA is game to encourage such concepts as housing first among their programs including SSVF and VASH. Yet, on the ground level (in my experience) neither SSVF nor VASH are held to any Federal standard to adhere to the tenets of housing first. As long as prevention dollars and per diem programs exist, we are not doing housing first for the homeless veterans we are tasked to house. As long as a “chronic waiver” for VASH is issued and allowed to see the light of day, we are not doing the best job we can for homeless veterans. As long as the VA is not sharing data with HMIS (and vice versa), we are not doing the best job we can for homeless veterans. As long as VA-funded providers are given the latitude to serve who they wish versus being encouraged, monetarily, to serve the veterans most likely to die on the streets, then we are not doing the best job we can for homeless veterans. As long as we are expected as Continuums of Care, to task precious staff time and resources toward convincing the VA to measure up to their own goals and start doing more of the shit that works and less of the shit that doesn’t, we are not doing much of anything. We are window-dressing. If we are ever going to enter the enlightened place of creating a real system that ends homelessness, for anyone, then intention must be applied to the situation. Both rewards for those expediting the response in the correct way and repercussions for those who aren’t must be leveled without waiver.

  3. Exemptions from housing first for “particular programs”: I have nothing against recovery programs, group homes, and the like. I think they can be incredibly effective. I have nothing against programs that want to serve very specific populations. But funding these programs with funds meant for those who are chronically homeless, the highest acuity, and most likely to die on the street, is incredibly irresponsible and reprehensible. Pet populations and projects are fine, as long as the agencies running them are willing to do their own fundraising, seek state funds, or other funds particular to their cause. For example, applying HUD PSH to a recovery model is not the intention of the funding source, nor the vehicle for delivering such a housing option. If we continue to apply very limited resources to scenarios where they are guaranteed to be unsuccessful (most recovery programs here require sobriety, for instance, which could be an entirely separate blog post of its own) and then stand around scratching our heads as to why chronic homelessness hasn’t ended, I think I can go ahead and save us some time in the analysis: it’s because we’re not applying money meant to end chronic homelessness toward ending chronic homelessness.

People in other places often tell me that WVCEH serves as an inspiration for them, and for that I am both humbled and grateful. I assure you, that we are not geniuses. In our shop we do, however, talk about “going around”. “Let’s go around” is a constant refrain. It’s the refrain that led us to provide rapid rehousing for high acuity and chronically homeless people in a way that works. But what would happen if none of us who are willing to do the hard work had to “go around”? What if resources were flexible enough to be applied to the situation in the way they were most needed, person-by-person, and family-by-family? I think we’d have a lot more inspiration going on. And I think we’d be able to drop the “functional” and start realizing some “plain” zeroes. 

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WV Coalition to End Homelessness | PO Box 4697, Bridgeport, WV 26330 | 304-842-9522 | info@wvceh.org | website by brickswithoutstraw