State Leaders Unite to end a Tough Problem: Homelessness
JOHN DEARIE | Posted: Sunday, February 5, 2012
Polls continue to show that many Americans regard Washington, D.C., as a hopelessly dysfunctional caldron of political acrimony and gridlock. But in Virginia, political leaders of both parties are proving that Republicans and Democrats of good will and political courage can come together to address some of the commonwealth’s toughest problems.
A marvelous example of such bipartisan cooperation came early in the new legislative session. On Dec. 19, Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, proposed a budget for fiscal years 2013 and 2014 that includes $1.5 million in new funds to combat and end homelessness in Virginia. The funds, to be allocated in 2013, include $1 million to support the policy approach known as “permanent supportive housing,” (PSH) and $500,000 in support of “rapid re-housing” (RRH).
Just weeks later, on Jan. 3, state Sen. Janet Howell, a Democrat from Reston, and Del. Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican from Woodbridge, offered an amendment to the budget that would allocate an additional $1.5 million for 2014. Joining Howell in supporting the Senate amendment as co-patrons are Sens. John Edwards (D), Frank Wagner (R) and John Watkins (R). Joining Lingamfelter in supporting the House amendment as co-patrons are Dels. Rich Anderson (R), Betsy Carr (D), Barbara Comstock (R), Chris Head (R), Charniele Herring (D), Manoli Loupassi (R), Jenn McClellan (D), Bob Tata (R) and Ron Villanueva (R).
All are to be commended for their vision and their leadership.
According to Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development, as many as 50,000 Virginians experience homelessness each year — more than 9,000 on any given night. Worst of all, a third of Virginia’s homeless are kids. Homeless children are twice as likely to struggle with learning disabilities, three times as likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems, and four times as likely to experience developmental difficulties. Following the recent economic downturn and foreclosure crisis, service providers across the commonwealth report a significant increase in the number of people seeking housing and food assistance, and as many as 20,000 Virginia families with children have doubled up with relatives and are at high risk of sudden homelessness.
Permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing programs are helping to turn the tide against homelessness. PSH provides immediate access to affordable rental housing, followed by a range of services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, health care, and job training. This “housing first” approach marks a dramatic shift in combating homelessness. In stark contrast to the conventional emergency shelter approach — which provides only temporary assistance and does nothing to solve the underlying causes of homelessness — PSH creates a context of safety, stability and affordability within which real progress on other key fronts can be achieved.
Rapid re-housing focuses specifically on families experiencing homelessness. As the term suggests, RRH programs aim to re-house homeless families quickly in order to provide the shelter and stability that well-being and progress require.
PSH works. According to the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness (VCEH), more than 2,000 people, including some 470 people in families with children, currently reside in PSH units. Eighty-five to 100 percent of the tenants in several of Virginia’s PSH programs have not returned to homelessness. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently identified the emergence of PSH programs as the single most important factor in reducing chronic homelessness in America in recent years.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that PSH also delivers dramatic savings. The homeless population often cycles between life on the street, hospital emergency rooms, mental health facilities and jail — all of which costs communities money. A 2010 analysis of Virginia Supportive Housing’s “A Place to Start” initiative showed that the program had dramatically reduced this hopeless and costly cycle, saving the local community $320,000.
Much more work remains to be done. According to VCEH, another 7,000 PSH units are needed to end homelessness in Virginia. That’s a daunting number, but it can be achieved. And, Virginia has already made impressive progress.
Permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing represent a policy breakthrough in fighting homelessness. At long last, homelessness need not be regarded as an ever-present scourge within our communities — and the homeless need not be regarded as helpless. PSH and RRH programs work, and they save money. Most importantly, they save lives.
The members of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness thank McDonnell, Howell and Lingamfelter, and the bipartisan co-patrons of their amendment for their vision, their courage and their leadership.