Reflections on National Alliance to End Homelessness Conference

10336828_10152204652133434_3002800600495125984_nAs an outsider, it can be easy to see homelessness as a deeply entrenched issue that will always be a reality. There are countless reasons why individuals and families find themselves experiencing a housing crisis, and some just seem more resilient than others. The more I think about the issue, however, the more I realize that the solution to homelessness itself (not poverty – that’s a bigger issue) is pretty simple: get people off the streets and into housing. Real progress and strategies towards ending homelessness were the focus of the 2014 National Alliance to End Homelessness conference that took place in Washington, DC. While there were many themes and important takeaways from the event, if I had to pick just one it would be this: ending homelessness (itself) is absolutely possible and is already happening in communities across the country.

How are communities effectively tackling homelessness? The conference stressed a few key points:

  • Using resources they have better: Systems thinking, comprehensive data collection and analysis, and “right-sizing” are helping communities to avoid over-serving or under-serving populations in housing crisis. It is also helping to allocate money to more cost-effective interventions like rapid re-housing or permanent supportive housing.
  • Coordinated assessment: Our community has been working hard to enhance access to homeless services and to streamline access to resources. Coordinated assessment makes it easier for people experiencing a housing crisis to more efficiently get matched with a program that meets their needs. The faster people are matched with the right program, the faster they are able to move into permanent housing. The implementation of tools like the VI-SPDAT are helping this process by prioritizing serving those who are most vulnerable.  
  • Diversion: Providers find that many people come into the homeless services system who would actually be best served by another social services system. By effectively diverting these individuals out of homeless services and into the appropriate system, the number of people to be served stays manageable and the resources needed to serve these individuals and families are more available.
  • Progressive engagement: Not everyone needs the same level of intervention, and many people can bounce back after a crisis situation with minimal help. By better adjusting service provision according to need, more resources are available to help people exit homelessness.

By staying focused on ending homelessness (itself, first), maximizing resources through right-sizing, coordinated assessment, diversion and progressive engagement, and doing what data continues to demonstrate (that rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing are cost-effective interventions) ending homelessness is happening. Ending veteran homelessness by 2015 is the first big goal, and we as a system can do that in the Greater Richmond region. Then we’ll end chronic homelessness by 2016, and move on to children and family homelessness after that. Continued investment and public commitment to ending homelessness will be critical to this process, but we know it can be done.

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Working together to understand Homelessness in RVA

Volunteers lining up to survey participants of St. Paul's lunch program.

Volunteers lining up to survey lunch program participants at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of Betsy Carr.

We know that data is critical to ending homelessness as it allows us to understand who is experiencing homelessness and informs service providers what is needed to quickly transition clients into permanent housing. Getting data can be difficult, and requires the presence of numerous volunteers in order to reach the maximum amount of individuals. The more people we talk to, the better the picture we get of area homelessness.

For the last twice-yearly Point-in-Time Count in January 2014 we had close to 60 volunteers committed to conducting surveys. Three days before the July count, however, we had only 20 volunteers registered. Understandably, this made us very nervous.

We reached out to our network through emails, social media posts and phone calls with calls to action. Many of our partner organizations rallied their networks, and through these combined efforts, our community responded in an amazing way. On the day of the Point-in-Time Count, 57 volunteers came out to St. Paul’s and helped complete a total of 186 surveys (75% of attendees). Additional volunteers joined us to survey that evening, and we are so grateful for the support and generosity of everyone who participated in some way on or leading up to July 24th.

Some awesome examples of how our network rallied:

  • OAR’s Executive Director sent his daughters.
  • VCU students came out
  • Non-profit staff members took time out of work to attend
  • Our church partners shared with their networks
  • A formally homeless college student attended
  • A volunteer came from Reddit and then recruited a hair stylist
  • Many of our friends and partners shared our Facebook post on their pages

This was a powerful reminder that our community really is about working together and doing everything it takes to end homelessness in Greater Richmond.

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Coordinated response: Two veterans’ stories of struggle and hope

On September 27, Kelly and I attended a conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and co-sponsored by Council of Community Services, Homeward, The Planning Council, Project HOPE, Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, Virginia Department of Veterans’ Services, and Commonwealth of Virginia – Governor’s Office.  The conference was titled Collaborative Impact: The Case for Reducing Homelessness.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the session on “The Voice of the Veteran.”  We heard from two formerly homeless veterans.  Both had compelling but very different stories to tell.

A young woman named Samantha spoke of how abandoned she’d felt by the military after she was discharged and the difficulties she experienced as a newly single mother.  She finally exited homelessness through a combination of new housing-focused services for homeless veterans and the support of family members at critical points.

Earl, a Vietnam veteran, talked about his efforts to get help for mental health problems. His exit to stable housing came through a partnership between The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Veteran’s Administration.

In both cases, these formerly homeless veterans were trying to get help and encountering difficulties like being asked to leave a shelter because of anger issues or not getting needed treatment.  Stably housed now, their stories and struggles provide further motivation for all working to end homelessness, for veterans and everyone affected by it.

I’ll be the first person to say that the numbers are important.  Hearing from these veterans reminded me that no one can do this work alone and that our numbers help to tell the stories of people like Samantha and Earl.  It takes hearing from people experiencing homelessness, service providers, experts, and business leaders to ensure that when our neighbors lose their housing, we have a coordinated response that minimizes their housing instability and enables them to share their hopeful stories.

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Students fighting homelessness: Reflections from a Homeward intern

VCU and VUU students started their fall semester yesterday, beginning another year balancing classes, clubs, internships, jobs, and more.  For Homeward, this means engaging college students in ending homelessness through volunteerism, internships, class projects, and homelessness education.  We love that students take the time to learn about and get involved with homeless services in greater Richmond.

One of those amazing students is our summer communications intern, Paris Jackson.  She helped us on numerous projects and her energy light up our office and events.  Below, she shares a little about her experience at Homeward.

When I began applying for summer internships, I had the desire to work for a huge event planning firm or a radio station.  My plans changed when I saw an ad for a summer internship with Homeward, the regional planning and coordinating organization for homeless services in Richmond, Virginia. Even though I had no education on homelessness, other than seeing people on street corners around the city, I was immediately intrigued by their mission to end homelessness in RVA.

Once I landed the internship, I was thrilled at the opportunity gain new skills and experiences within the field of public relations, as well as learn more about the issues surrounding homelessness. I started my internship just in time to attend Homeward’s annual conference on Best Practices to Prevent and End Homelessness. While at the conference, I attended sessions and learned about many different programs and partnerships working to end homelessness in the Richmond community.  I gained a whole new perspective about homelessness, as well as a better understanding of the importance of my work as a Homeward intern.

Over the next eight weeks, I updated social media outlets, designed flyers, produced videos, solicited in-kind donations, met with local PR practitioners, and helped with the summer Point-in-Time Count.  On my last day, I participated in the Point-In-Time Count as a survey volunteer at St. Paul’s Episcopal’ s lunch and First Baptist’s dinner.  It was powerful to see so many organizations and volunteers take time out of their schedules to connect with clients.  I had the opportunity to survey and learn from five community members experiencing housing crisis.  This event was such a humbling experience for me, because I realized homelessness affects a diverse group of men, women and children – and at any point could affect any one of us.

My time with Homeward was short, but it opened my eyes to the importance of ending homelessness.  I learned that communications serves as an important tool in ending homelessness, building relationships between those in need, helping organizations, and the larger community.  Once the community is made aware of the problem and its solution, people are more likely to act.  As I take the next steps in my career, I plan to act by volunteering my communications expertise to help with this issue.

If you are a college student looking for research on homelessness, or if you are ready to dive in by volunteering or interning with Homeward, please contact Erika Schmale at eschmale@homewardva.org.  We would love to hear from you!

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Behind the Scenes: Winners’ Edition with the F.A.R.T.S

Homeward’s annual Conference on Best Practices to Prevent and End Homelessness highlight innovative programming from around the country working to prevent and end homelessness. During the conference, Homeward recognizes members of the homeless services community for outstanding achievement through the Trends and Innovations Awards.

To get to know our 2013 Trends and Innovations Awards Winners, we are dedicating several weeks to interviews with the winners.

This week, we are featuring the Furniture and Restoration Team of Specialists (F.A.R.T.S).  This team won the Bon Secours Outstanding Community Partner Award for their commitment to addressing the needs of people experiencing homelessness.  The F.A.R.T.S. volunteer weekly at CARITAS Furniture Bank building, repairing, and refinishing furniture for households in need of basic necessities.

Video Interview – Part One:

Video Interview – Part Two:

The interviews were filmed and edited by our summer PR Intern, Paris Jackson.  Paris – thanks for all your hard work this summer!

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Behind the Scenes: Winners’ Edition with Greg Johnson

Homeward’s annual Conference on Best Practices to Prevent and End Homelessness highlights innovative programming from around the country working to prevent and end homelessness. During the conference, Homeward recognizes members of the homeless services community for outstanding achievement through the Trends and Innovations Awards.

To get to know our 2013 Trends and Innovations Awards Winners, we are dedicating the next few weeks to interviews with the winners.

This week, we are featuring Greg Johnson, Maintenance Supervisor at HomeAgain.  Greg is the winner of the Steve Neathery award, which is given to someone who overcame homelessness and now contributes to the ability of others to make the same transition.  Greg has over 12 years of stellar performance at HomeAgain and has been a homeowner since 2008.

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What award did you receive & what does it mean to you?

“The Steve Neathery Award – How I was able to overcome challenges with substance abuse and with being unemployed and many more barriers in my life.”

Out of all the outstanding work you have done this past year, what experience has made the biggest impact?

“Giving back to my community and working directly with the homeless population.”

What is your favorite part about your job/volunteer work?

“Being able to motivate an individual and they give a smile or handshake back.”

What made you want to be involved in ending homelessness?

“I want people to know how I successfully overcame homelessness with lots of support from people from various agencies.”

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Behind The Scenes: Winners’ Edition with Natalie May

Homeward’s annual Conference on Best Practices to Prevent and End Homelessness highlight innovative programming from around the country working to prevent and end homelessness. During the conference, Homeward recognizes members of the homeless services community for outstanding achievement through the Trends and Innovations Awards.

To get to know our 2013 Trends and Innovations Awards Winners, we are dedicating the next few weeks to interviews with the winners.

This week, we are featuring Natalie May, Outstanding Volunteer Award winner for her work with Change the World RVA ministry.

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What award did you receive & what does it mean to you?

“I received the Outstanding Volunteer award, but I’m a little embarrassed by it.  As I said at the luncheon, I’m just the volunteer that you can see – there are dozens of other volunteers in our ministry who are giving their time to help homeless high school and college students, too.  We have volunteer drivers, tutors, mentors, host families, cooks, people who donate money and items for the food and hygiene pantries in the schools, fund raising volunteers – it’s definitely not just me.  Not at all.  Still, I am really happy to draw attention to our ministry, Change the World RVA, and the amazing students in our community who need our support in order to succeed in school and life.”

Out of all the outstanding work you have done this past year, what experience has made the biggest impact?

“The biggest impact, I think, has been that we have managed to build relationships between homeless high school and college students and caring adults in the Richmond community.  Our ministry isn’t just about raising money or even collecting items for food pantries – although we certainly need both!  What we’re really about is getting adults in the community to actually meet our students – this usually happens when they give them a ride somewhere, but it also happens in the after school program and the summer college prep program and other places.  Once people meet our students, they fall in love with them.  They want to help them.  They want to become a caring person in their life.  They reach out in ways they never dreamed of.  It is so cool to watch!  And I think soon we’ll see these adults join together to advocate for systemic change in areas such as public transportation and quality public education.  Suddenly these issues aren’t something that affects some anonymous person or group of people; they affect a young person that they really care about.  Members of my church couldn’t have cared less about public transportation a year ago.  But after trying to help students find jobs for the past year, we all see the impact that inadequate transportation has on their welfare, self-esteem, and ability to succeed and become independent.  My hope is that we will continue to foster relationships that will ultimately result in social change.”

What is your favorite part about your job/volunteer work?

I have loved getting to know people in different congregations and the people in the homeless services community that I never knew before.  But my favorite part is just hanging out with our students.  When you get a group of them together for a field trip, meal, or a service project, they are so funny and smart and kind.  There have been days when I’ve felt tired or overwhelmed, and after I’ve spent 5 or 10 minutes with our students, I am completely energized again.”

What made you want to be involved in ending homelessness?

“That’s funny.  I had absolutely no intention of being involved in ending homelessness!  But I met a student, Elaine Williams, and I immediately cared about her and wanted to be helpful.  Homelessness isn’t a problem like any other, I don’t think.  You can’t isolate ways to help and say, “I am going to do this one thing” to help.  You can’t just buy a kid a bus pass and be done with it.  You can’t even just offer academic support.  If a student doesn’t have a safe place to live and a network of caring adults, none of the other things you might do to help really matter.  It’s the same with success in college, which is where we thought we were headed with all this.  You can’t just help a student move into the dorm and say, “Have a great year!”  You need to be there to help them get over the bumps in the road that could derail a student’s dreams of finishing college.  Prior to moving into the dorm, you need to help them with applications and paperwork and photo IDs and college visits and more paperwork.  Then you really have to think about whether or not our schools are preparing them academically for college (they’re not).  Then you need to figure out what we as a community can do to solve that problem.  Homelessness seems so huge, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.”

What was your favorite part of the Best Practices conference this year & why?

“It was my first conference, and I enjoyed meeting people.  I also did what I was told by Stevie [Toepke, from The Frontier Project, who spoke at the morning plenary at the conference.]   I made some “forced connections” that generated a few good ideas, I think.  What really blew me away was that the people who do this work for a living were the first to ask how they could volunteer to help our students!  Amazing.  I appreciated the opportunity to attend and I look forward to next year.”

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