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Photo: Newark Hope Village

Pandemic lessons could help cities end homelessness

20 May 2021

by Sarah Wray

Ending homelessness is possible. This is the conclusion of a new co-authored book, How Ten Global Cities Take on Homelessness, which profiles Los Angeles, Houston, Nashville, New York City, Baltimore, Bogotá, Mexico City, Edmonton, Paris and Athens.

According to estimates from the UN, 150 million people are homeless globally. The book’s outlook might seem overly optimistic given the long-term nature, complexity and persistence of homelessness and the continued economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Linda Gibbs, Principal for Social Services at pro bono consulting group Bloomberg Associates and one of the book’s authors, said: “COVID has given rise to incredible surges forward” and if retained and built on, these could ultimately move cities closer to alleviating homelessness for the long-term.

The publication focuses on cities that Bloomberg Associates has worked with over several years on homelessness and summarises the ideas, strategies, successes and failures that others can learn from. Gibbs served as New York’s commissioner overseeing homelessness from 2002 to 2005 and then until 2013 was Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, before joining Bloomberg.

Linda Gibbs, Bloomberg Associates

She said: “Overwhelmingly, the most frequently sought-after advice from mayors is on the perplexing issue of street homelessness in particular.”

Across all the cities, despite their significant differences, the book pinpoints sustained, cross-system collaboration as a fundamental to achieving outcomes on homelessness, alongside data sharing and leadership.

“Homelessness is not owned by anybody,” said Gibbs. Although mayors often end up leading on efforts and must play a central role alongside service providers and housing organisations, it’s also essential to bring in behavioural health experts, addiction professionals and mental health workers.

“It’s about having the key players agreeing to a collaborative strategy on case management and problem-solving for individuals,” said Gibbs. “The sum is greater than the parts – you suddenly find solutions that hadn’t been possible when you’re working in silos.”

She noted that this was proven during the pandemic when places that had some form of collaborative entity or process leveraged that for huge improvements, while cities that didn’t have these networks set them up and are now looking at how to retain them as “a fundamental part of the infrastructure.”

Houston’s pandemic response

The book highlights the importance of point-in-time counts to track homelessness, prioritise actions and galvanise city-wide coalitions. While more sophisticated integrated service-system data is fundamental too, many cities still struggle with regular basic counting due to factors such as lack of political will, disagreement on survey design and logistical challenges.

Some also cancelled their counts this year due to the pandemic but Houston went ahead and showed a 23 percent drop in homelessness since 2020.

The survey found 3,055 individuals experiencing homelessness on the night of January 19, 2021 in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, Texas, compared to 3,974 in 2020. There were 1,545 people staying in shelter and 1,510 people living unsheltered, compared to 2,318 and 1,656 respectively the year before.

Due to the unique circumstances created by COVID-19 and methodology changes necessitated by it, the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, which co-ordinates the count, stresses that the 2021 results are not directly comparable to those of past years. However, some conclusions can be drawn.

In particular, alongside the eviction moratorium, the Coalition highlights the Community-wide COVID Housing Program (CCHP) as a factor preventing unsheltered numbers being higher.

CCHP is described as an “unprecedented co-ordinated effort on the part of the City and the County to address homelessness in the region”.

The US$65 million initiative, including US$29 million from The City of Houston and US$18 million from Harris County in federal CARES Act funding as well as philanthropic support, aims to serve approximately 5,000 people experiencing or at risk of homelessness by autumn 2022.

It includes ‘bridge’ services to permanent supportive housing for those experiencing chronic homelessness, rapid rehousing schemes, diversion initiatives to keep people in their homes, mental health support and enhanced street outreach.

Between October 1, 2020, which marked the launch of CCHP, and January 19, 2021, the night of record for the count, almost 800 people — most of whom were previously unsheltered — were permanently housed.

“It appears that we have avoided a surge in homelessness — for now,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in March when the latest homeless count figures were revealed. “This is of no coincidence, but due to the wise and targeted investment of new sources of funding; our usage of permanent housing as an infectious diseases control response; and the ingenuity and hard work of our homeless response system.”

If successful, the CCHP initiative could end chronic homelessness in Houston, according to the authors of the book, who note that the city drew heavily on its experience from Hurricane Harvey in co-ordinating COVID-19 efforts.

Tamiru Mammo, consultant manager of Social Services at Bloomberg Associates and former health advisor in New York City’s Mayor’s Office, said: “I think [Houston] leveraged the crisis. When you get people in, when suddenly the crisis of homelessness is important to everyone because of this pandemic, they can use that as an opportunity to make progress.”

Flexible housing

The pandemic has also driven creativity in the use of data, processes and housing solutions.

As COVID-19 took hold, cities faced an urgent need for non-congregate housing where each resident has their own private space. Many cities have adapted hotel rooms and some, such as Austin, are exploring 3D printing, as well as technologies such as blockchain to help the homeless manage essential documents needed to secure housing.

“Crises give rise to great innovations,” said Gibbs. “Like somebody whose idea they’ve been pushing forever but never got the momentum, and suddenly it’s ‘Boom, let’s do it’.”

Bloomberg Associates is working with Newark, New Jersey on its Hope Village pilot scheme which launched in March and uses converted containers to shelter 24 homeless people. The programme is focused on attracting individuals that have typically been shelter averse. Attention has also been paid to the visual appeal of the village, through partnerships with artists and designers to use bright colours and positive messages.

Tamiru Mammo, Bloomberg Associates

Gibbs said: “It’s not just about pop-up shelters but about how they engage these people with a low-threshold safe haven approach and as a community, understanding that their ties to each other were important in getting them to agree to come off the streets and into services.”

Across city departments and geographies, leaders have reported a newfound ability to get things done faster during the pandemic through necessity.

In May 2020, New York State Governor Cuomo ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to close the subway between 1am and 5am for the first time, displacing approximately 2,000 people who were regularly sleeping on the trains.

The MTA collaborated with outreach providers and shelter partners to set up hubs at the 29 end-of-the-line stations across New York’s five boroughs where people could access accommodation options and transport to get there.

“They could not manage the intake process quickly enough, though,” said Gibbs. “So, in the middle of the night, they retooled the way that intake into shelter happened, allowing the shelter workers to place people into shelters directly without going through central intake. It streamlined this process that has been laborious and barrier-creating for a long time.”

She added: “To me the question is, when we move out of this crisis, are we going to go back to our old ways? Or are we going to think about how to take those lessons to really transform ourselves moving forward?”

Inflection point

This is an important question cutting across transportation, social services, education and how we work. Although the threat from the pandemic is receding in some countries through vaccination, its knock-on effects on issues such as homelessness remain uncertain and may be masked by temporary COVID measures, such as eviction moratoriums, rental and income assistance programmes, and hotel accommodation schemes. In Houston, although the overall homelessness numbers went down, one in seven people experiencing unsheltered homelessness cited coronavirus as the reason, with many of them specifically citing job loss or reduction in work hours and/or eviction as the triggering event.

“There’s potentially a huge number of people who are vulnerable, facing hardships and could end up on the streets in the future if governments are not cautious over the next couple of years and don’t really improve efforts to prevent people from moving to the streets,” said Mammo.

However, the authors are optimistic overall.

Gibbs said: “A key conclusion I take from having worked with my colleagues and presented the material of this book is that we know what to do and we see it can be done. It’s hard work but where you have the leadership and the commitment, and you’re informed by evidence-based practice and a lot of data and accountability, you can make a difference.”

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