by Janice Elliott
Executive Director, Melville Charitable Trust
When I was a child, I’d sometimes sit on the floor and pull a blanket over my head like a tent. And within that little circle of fabric, flashlight in hand, I’d feel a leap of joy - at last I had my own private sanctuary, safe from the taunts of my four siblings; a space where I felt less lost.
Little did I know then that much of my adult years would be focused on the idea of home as sanctuary, particularly for people who have experienced loss - the loss of their housing, their possessions, their family supports, and oftentimes their hope as they fell into homelessness. My career, through its many iterations over the years, at the Community Builders, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, InSite Housing, and then the Melville Trust - has been focused on how to create rental homes nationally and here in my home state of Connecticut that are not just affordable but are also places where the people who live there can find support, safety, autonomy and joy. It has been challenging and immensely satisfying work that I will miss dearly once I retire at the end of this year.
While my professional career will end soon, my role as a citizen and advocate will continue. And as citizens, we all witness - either in our own communities, through travel to other states, or by reading the newsfeeds - the increasing visibility of homelessness in American cities: people who are destitute on street corners, in tent encampments, finding shelter under overpasses, or living in cars. We see it most in cities with overheated housing markets like Los Angeles and San Francisco where the number of people without homes has overwhelmed the shelter system, so a great many sleep outdoors.
And when we see it, we are horrified at the conditions in which people are living, feel shame that it has gotten to this point, and are frustrated at what seems to be our collective inability as a country to stem the tide and turn things around. These emotions are expressions of our humanity - we don’t want people to suffer and we want to make things better.
But the worst thing we can do is let those emotions give in to despair and forget that we have the power to remedy the situation in ways that respect human dignity and provide for lasting solutions. Ceding that power is how the issue of homelessness quickly becomes politicized - legitimate expressions of compassion are subverted by people in power in order to justify quick-fixes (such as criminalizing or institutionalizing people) - “fixes” that only serve to move or hide people in harmful ways and don’t solve the underlying problem.
The important thing to remember is that we know what the solutions are - the foremost being decent housing that people can access and afford, supports that help people stay housed, and laws and policies that support both and reduce peoples’ vulnerability to housing loss in the first place. The tricky part is moving from that knowledge to action.
We’ve learned quite a bit about moving to action here in Connecticut, through trial and error, research, and refinement over the past 25 years. This had led to significant reductions in homelessness, with an overall a drop of 32% since 2007. The lessons are many, but three rise to the top for me as being particularly important to remember in these times:
- The biggest reforms needed to end homelessness do not lie within the homeless service system. Through a bit of matchmaking and coordinated planning, individual publicly-funded systems - like housing, mental health, and addiction services, for example - can align their resources and their practices so that people get what they need when they need it and at lower cost than crisis services. We learned this in Connecticut when the state departments of housing, mental health, and social services - with help from the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) - figured out a way to coordinate their dollars with each other and with the federal government to finance the creation and operation of community-based, service-supported housing for people who had been homeless repeatedly or for long periods of time. The Connecticut Interagency Committee on Supportive Housing has been a nexus point for this multi-system coordination for over two decades, resulting in the creation of thousands of supportive housing units and dramatic reductions in chronic homelessness across the state.
Yet, there is still much systems reform work to be done here. Despite the gains, far too many people with mental illness end up in jails or prisons and then released to the streets. Far too many young adults age out of the foster care system with no place to live.
But we now know that the key is starting with housing, first - and advocating for what’s needed to bring it within the reach of people who have very limited resources. Government-funded rent and capital subsidies can make housing affordable. Housing policies that override exclusionary zoning practices can make housing available in more places. With the housing strategy figured out, linkages with these other systems can be designed to work in tandem.
- Success in reducing homelessness relies on government leadership, courage, and coordinated advocacy sustained over an extended period.
Connecticut’s strategies to reduce homelessness have garnered broad bipartisan support in the legislature and from successive governors of both parties over many years. That’s no accident. The Reaching Home campaign, coordinated by the Partnership for Strong Communities, was launched in 2004 as an advocacy effort to build the political and civic will to prevent and end homelessness in Connecticut. It has grown to be all that and more, serving also as a central forum for statewide strategy coordination and planning among nonprofit and public agencies. We could not have made the gains we have made so far without Reaching Home’s consistent work over many years supporting state agencies in devising effective policies, keeping us true to our values, and holding policymakers’ feet to the fire.
- At the end of the day, it’s about people.
Homelessness represents for so many people the end of hope, the hope that things are going to get better. When I worked at CSH, we would ask tenants of supportive housing what home meant to them. While everyone had a different story to tell, what was most powerful for many was having a place where they could lay their head at night, a place where they had their own key and they could come home at the end of the day and put that key in the door. They could finally call something theirs.
That’s the heart and soul of what this work is about. It’s about dignity, it’s about respect, it’s about hope. It’s a story about living in a world where no one is lost. If we want to be a part of that world, let’s hold these values close and, as citizens, hold our government leaders - mayors, governors, and our president - accountable for doing the same.
Janice Elliott is the Executive Director of the Melville Charitable Trust, the largest foundation in the United States exclusively devoted to preventing and ending homelessness. Its grants support efforts to end homelessness in its home state of Connecticut and to create a better policy environment at the national level.