The Covid pandemic is exposing cracks in numerous public systems—including health care, finance, and housing. In fact, says Rosanne Haggerty, founder of Community Solutions and a global expert on homelessness, the three are closely linked. Before Covid, homelessness was an epidemic on its own. Now, with 40 million Americans newly unemployed, a crisis looms, and Rosanne sees a historic opportunity to end homelessness once and for all. We spoke with her about the challenges and opportunities facing America, and what new mindsets are needed and possible.
Rosanne, you have been working on homelessness for 30 years. How are you approaching this moment?
We’re looking at this moment as an opportunity to design homelessness out of existence.
We’ve long seen homelessness as the visible indicator of a broken public health system, broken civic infrastructure, and governance failures. If these systems and institutions were working effectively, we wouldn’t have persistent homelessness and we certainly wouldn’t regard it as normal.
Covid-19 has revealed, for all to see, the breakdowns that the existence of homelessness was warning us about all along. Now that we’re facing a national project of building a new public health infrastructure, and evolving institutions and governance models to handle the current and looming crisis, we can make eliminating homelessness an explicit goal of this project, and a measure of whether it’s succeeding.
We’re also looking at the imminent risk of significant new homelessness resulting from the economic crisis. Economists have projected a greater than 40% increase in homelessness when eviction moratoria end.
A noteworthy bright spot in this moment is that many communities quickly moved people off the streets or out of crowded shelters and into quarantine and isolation units. They’ve seen they can rapidly house people when the urgency is clear and that is the clear objective. So two immediate tasks are to prevent new homelessness, and to seize the opportunity to help individuals move directly from these temporary situations into stable homes, while also laying the groundwork for a new system altogether.
How do you move such an ambitious, long-term agenda in the midst of this crisis?
The immense scale of the crisis demands a federal response. To prevent new homelessness, we’re focused on the fourth stimulus bill now being debated in the Senate. There is a large request included for temporary and permanent rental assistance for different groups. Homelessness as a political issue can often find bipartisan support. Taking action now to prevent homelessness during the economic crisis is a rare opportunity to avert a clear looming disaster through smart legislation and investment.
Covid is giving us a new, shared language of vulnerability and a rediscovered fondness for reliable public systems. Public health is becoming part of this new shared language and how we think about keeping each other safe. My colleagues and I see this shift to a public health mindset and language as the key to a future without homelessness. Public health is a highly developed professional discipline, with ways of seeing human well-being holistically and being accountable for results. It provides a set of values for a population to relate to each other: as we are all connected, we aim to keep each person healthy in order for everyone to be healthy. It also relies on shared facts and measures and an openness around whether prevention efforts or interventions are working.
We’ve been cultivating relationships with healthcare systems and in public health because, as any person experiencing homelessness can tell you, their health bottoms out the longer they remain homeless. The effects of homelessness show up profoundly in health systems. Leaders in the health field know this and are searching for an effective role to play. Kaiser Permanente grasped this and works with us to engage communities and local governments in a systemic response to homelessness.
Why haven’t we found enduring solutions to homelessness?
America’s approach to homelessness has always been heavy on programs but light on effective systems that aim to solve the whole problem, for everyone. There are many good programs, but they tend to treat the symptoms, or simply aren’t big enough to fix the problem in a given community. The communities that are reducing and ending homelessness are working at the population level. All the organizations in that community are around the same table, working toward the single goal of reaching ‘functional zero,” which means cases of homelessness are rare, quickly detected and rapidly resolved. They know everyone currently experiencing homelessness by name in real time. They use this data to measure what’s working and quickly test new ideas as the dynamics of homelessness change. They allocate housing and other resources based on this data.
Preventing new homelessness in the moment we’re in will require similar levels of collaboration, nimble experimentation, and shared data to enable good decision making, even with federal assistance available for tenants and property owners.
Through your Built for Zero campaign, you partner with 81 communities across the country that have a public commitment to end homelessness. Why are they succeeding?
Leadership. It’s one person in the community, or two, or a small group, who ask the question “what if the problem is us and the way we’re working?” and can organize others to learn a new approach. Out of this shift to working toward outcomes, a mayor or county executive must then feel accountable for the result of achieving functional zero, and share accountability with other community leaders. The communities that are reducing and ending homelessness are operating out of a different paradigm than communities that are not succeeding. Successful communities are holding themselves accountable for eliminating homelessness and establishing a results-based culture.
This is a big commitment that forces a reckoning around long standing programs and ways of spending money. As communities get a clear picture through their data of what’s driving homelessness in their area, or blocking progress in connecting individuals with homes, they see the impact of other systems and often, the effects of race: segregated neighborhoods, lack of code and fair housing enforcement, allocation policies with respect to how housing is allocated and dollars spent. What we’re seeing is that ending homelessness is not a question of politics but practicality and commitment to results. Communities that are succeeding are red and blue.
With so much unemployment and economic suffering on the horizon, what are the preventive steps we should be taking now?
Preventing new homelessness means helping people stay in their homes. Most Western democracies have some kind of rental assistance. We should make this available to all who need it. There has been bipartisan agreement on this issue in the past. The point is to help people keep their homes.
Probably for the first moment ever, the interest of landlords and tenants are clearly aligned. They need each other—there will be fewer replacement tenants with stable income waiting in the wings. In addition to the new resources needed from the federal government, what should the new rules be, the new guiding principles, around eviction prevention, mortgage modification? An idea gaining traction is that the Federal Reserve backstop in some way a bailout for rental housing, contingent on a non-eviction pledge.
A solution could take different forms, but there are two crucial considerations. First, it has to be a large, inclusive, sweeping response that will provide adequate resources to present new homelessness. And second is that we need a really good delivery mechanism. It’s not about receiving a check in the mail from the government only but ensuring that there are local mechanisms to both roll out the relief and hold everyone accountable. Think in terms of a national service corps to help stabilize housing situations around the country, established federally but operationalized locally.
Rosanne Haggerty is an Ashoka Fellow who has been working on homelessness for thirty years. She and her colleagues lead Community Solutions and its national campaign to end homelessness, Built for Zero.