Op-Ed: This year’s homeless count is start of a revolution

Every year, our state joins in a national “Point in Time” count to identify those who are homeless on our streets and in our shelters.  This year’s effort, postponed due to snow and now scheduled for Feb. 18, will take these efforts to a new, and more productive level.

Rather than just counting the numbers of children, women, and men experiencing homelessness in Connecticut, we will collect information on their specific housing, medical and employment needs.

Op-ed submit bugArmed with this information, providers can better help our neighbors experiencing homelessness as they chart a path back to permanent housing.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

And yet, in the field of homelessness, this is a revolution.

For years, shelters have done the best they could to bring each person and family in out of the cold every night.  Agencies offering housing and supports have done the best that they could to help those in need, in as equitable a way as they could manage.

But now the field of homelessness — like all other areas of the for-profit and non-profit worlds — is harnessing the power of data systems and knowledge sharing to enhance our work.  In homelessness, this means bringing together multiple agencies in each community around the common goal of making the experience of homelessness infrequent and brief.

To understand why this is such a profound change, it helps to understand where we came from.  In the past, each program kept its own waitlist for housing and other important services, and allocated resources largely according to who submitted an application first.

Under that old system, providers and public officials had no way to gain a global view of the total needs to end homelessness in their community.  Each agency just knew how long its waitlist was, and who was on it.  No one could really answer the question of whether (or not?) the most intensive resources were routinely directed to the people who needed them most.

That old system focused too much on the services those agencies provided, and too little on organizing those services based on the individual needs of our neighbors experiencing homelessness.

The community-wide by-name registry is an essential tool to improve our response to homelessness because it allows service providers that work with individuals and families to target the right kind of assistance to the right person.

It allows providers to share an understanding, for example, of who among the homeless is so ill and so vulnerable as to be at  risk of death if their housing needs are not met.  Housing can be a matter of life and death. Prioritizing resources accordingly makes good sense, for both the person who is homeless and for our community resources like the hospitals and emergency services that will struggle (often in vain) to provide effective help to that person if he or she is not housed.

We are rolling out this innovation as part of the Connecticut’s effort to end homelessness among Veterans by 2015, and to end chronic homelessness (the long-term homelessness of people who are disabled) by 2016.

Connecticut is one of only six states in the country selected to lead Zero: 2016, the national campaign to achieve these twin goals.  Gov. Dannel Malloy has embraced this goal, and nonprofit providers across the state are working in close partnership with their colleagues in the state government agencies central to this work.  Those who have lived with homelessness for too long are anxiously awaiting the helping hand they need to get back into a place they can call home.

Together, working one person at a time and helping chart the right path to housing for each person, we can end Veteran and chronic homelessness in Connecticut.

And we won’t stop there.  Connecticut is also spearheading the first-in-the-nation count of homeless youth this year.  This is a first step toward understanding the scope of that important problem, so that we can plan for similarly effective ways to end youth homelessness across our state.

Ending homelessness in Connecticut is not an unreachable dream — it’s a public policy goal that we must achieve.  Homelessness is too costly to the people who experience it, and to our community resources (police, hospitals, schools, and emergency services) that are overtaxed when they try to respond to the severe side effects of this important problem.

Through innovations like this year’s enhanced homeless count process, we are not just talking about the goal – we are moving toward it.

Lisa Tepper Bates is the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, the statewide advocacy agency that leads the annual Point-in-Time Count of homelessness.   If you are interested in volunteering in a region for the PIT on Feb. 18, please email Jackie Janosko at jjanosko@cceh.org for more information.  

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