Ending homelessness in our time: why smart government is key.

Author:Donovan, Shaun

In the current political climate, the debate over government's role has often been about "more versus less"--more government services, programs, and taxpayer dollars, versus reduced services, fewer rules, and less federal investment.

But my two decades of experience in the public and private sectors tells me that families sitting around the kitchen table and sending their kids to school every morning aren't interested in abstract theories about whether government should be big or small. They simply want to know whether it can be smart and whether their tax dollars are producing results that impact their lives and communities in a positive way.

Of all the challenges I've faced as President Obama's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) these past three years, few illustrate this point more clearly than the issue of homelessness. America pays an extraordinary price for homelessness: from the tremendous human toll it takes on the men, women, and especially children caught up in the nightmare existence of life on the streets, to the costs associated with the revolving door of shelters, emergency rooms, and jail cells that result. Perhaps the steepest cost associated with homelessness is the mistaken belief that nothing can be done to stop it.

Less than a decade ago, it was widely believed that people we often refer to as "chronically homeless"--those who struggle with chemical dependency and mental illness and cycle through the shelter, criminal justice, and healthcare systems--would always be homeless. Some even suggested these people wanted to be homeless.

But leaders outside Washington--from rural Mankato, Minnesota, to urban San Francisco--refused to believe the chronically ill, long-term homeless population couldn't be helped. More than 300 communities committed themselves to ending chronic homelessness, partnering with local and state agencies and the private and nonprofit sectors. By combining housing and supportive services, they led a remarkable fight that has reduced the number of chronically homeless by more than a third in five years.

These communities are proving what just a few years ago seemed nearly impossible: that homelessness can be solved in America. Not reduced or managed, but actually ended.

That is why President Obama's bold commitment to ending homelessness is so important. In releasing Opening Doors: the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness in 2010, President Obama made clear that ending homelessness is the right thing to do for America's homeless population and the smart thing to do for taxpayers.

The most far-reaching and ambitious plan in our history to put the nation on a path toward ending all types of homelessness, Opening Doors, represents the culmination of more than a decade of testing new approaches and implementing new strategies in communities around the country. It commits our country to ending chronic homelessness and homelessness among veterans in five years, and ending homelessness for families, youth, and children within a decade, while putting us on a path to end all homelessness--breaking down bureaucracy and funding what works to get results.


Doing What Works

Over the past three decades, we've learned a lot about homelessness. The most important lesson is that in almost every case, homelessness isn't an intractable problem, but one that can be solved with the right tools and approaches.

Second, we've learned that one size doesn't fit all: different populations have different needs that sometimes require very different solutions. For instance, where a veteran returning from Afghanistan might need treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder...

To continue reading