Why Should We End Homelessness, And Why Now?

I recently spoke to the Municipal Association of Pasco (FL) with my thoughts on homelessness, and why now is the time to affect positive changes:

Municipal Association of Pasco Remarks
St. Leo, Florida – August 3, 2017

Good evening…my name is Daniel McDonald. I’m here tonight to talk about homelessness, and why it’s important, and why it’s important right now.

About me:

  • I’m originally from England
  • I was awarded an MPA degree from USF in 2010
  • I’m a 25-year law enforcement veteran
  • I can juggle
  • I know Morse code

I solve homelessness for a living. I work full-time as a homeless liaison officer for a large police agency. I also advise local governments how to develop or improve an effective homelessness strategy. I use the best, evidence-based practices

In 2012, I was tasked with what I consider to be the ultimate public administration challenge: solving the my city’s homeless problem, by myself, with a budget of zero.

I was given the job title, “homeless liaison”, which I always thought sounds like something Henry Kissinger would do in Geneva.

And my job is to solve problems – no matter how big or small. I focus on solutions and outcomes, not inputs or effort. I strive for quality over quantity.

My position was created because the current methods of solving homelessness did not work (and I’ll go into why we should solve homelessness shortly).

I needed to figure out what does work (as the police, arresting away the problem does not work. For example “Billy” has been arrested 176 arrests since 1995 for minor, quality of life offenses. Source: HCSO). 

I am often asked what services do I provide and how can I solve their problem?

  • This approach is backwards; I ask what is your problem then I find a solution for it
  • I take clients from the streets or encampments, directly into housing
    • I often skip the shelters and transitional housing
      • They are the airport holding patterns of homelessness (at some point you must bring the plane in for a landing)
    • I have arranged a wedding
    • I helped “John” get an ID, then discovered he had about $43,000 in the bank
    • I assisted “Fred” collect a $500,00 inheritance

What about other communities? I found three common responses to homelessness:

  1. Maintain the status quo (in other words, do nothing and ignore the problem)
    • How many of you have done this: Some say that if you don’t make eye contact with a homeless person, they are not really there
  2. Attempt to manage homelessness
    • Out of sight, out of mind. Letting the homeless live on the streets or in the woods)
    • Ineffective shelters and programs (in case I got you worried, the navigation center is an effective, housing-focused strategy)
    • The city of Lawrence, MA has the police stationed outside a homeless camp, enforcing “rules”. Why not solve the problem?
  3. Solve the problem. Housing is the only known cure for homelessness

Why have communities have failed?

It’s not about more resources, it’s about more effective use of resources (performance measurement)

They have attempted (and failed) to program their way out of homelessness with programs, usually named with a complicated acronym)

There are programs for:

  • Single men
  • Single women
  • Pregnant women
  • Families
  • Ex-offenders
  • The mentally ill
  • Those with addictions
  • Those with disabilities
  • Those with mental illness and addictions
  • Those with mental illness, addictions and disabilities (tri-morbidity)
  • Veterans
    • In my city, your program depends upon your last name (A-L, M-Z). The programs are about 3 miles apart
  • The system is inefficient. It’s not user friendly. How does a consumer navigate this? I can’t.
  • It can take years exit homelessness via the traditional route: shelter system for up to 90 days, then transitional housing for up two years, then finally permanent housing (you can earn a master’s degree in less time)

You also must meet program requirements such as:

  • Sobriety (who’s had a drink within 30-days?)
  • Complete classes (more programming. Ugh!)
  • Get an ID (but you need a birth certificate)
  • Get a birth certificate (But you need an ID)
  • Get vaccinations
  • Don’t be late

You must complete classes. These are actual classes at Pinellas Safe Harbor (source: TBN Weekly, 06/21/11)

  • Errors in Thinking (so much for the power of positive thinking)
  • Skills for Successful Transition
  • Breaking the Chain
  • Living in Balance support group
  • Problem Solving for Daily Life
  • Coping Skills, and Self-Defeating Behaviors.

I have one question…Where’s the beef? Show me your housing!

The homeless recovery system is like going into a restaurant, and you don’t get a menu because someone else knows what’s best for you. AND you must bring your own ingredients before they cook the meal that has been chosen for you

Are you beginning to see a pattern? How about asking the client what they want? How about a place to live? Why not cut out the programming and spend it on housing with wrap-around services? Many programs are like cotton candy – lots of fluff but no substance

Why should we solve homelessness?

  • Public policy – we joined this profession to serve our communities, especially those in need
  • Economic benefits
    • Chronic homelessness is expense; it costs communities about $30,000 per year in public resources yet only $12,000 for permanent housing
    • It reduces police calls for service for quality of life complaints such as trespassing or panhandling
    • It reduces blight, and makes your community for attractive for economic development 

Why should we solve homelessness right now? (without losing the next election). I think we are at a tipping point:

  • We know how to
    • Housing end homelessness. Housing first works; it has an 85% success rate
    • Come as you are or jail diversion shelters have very low success rate
    • In 2013, Pinellas Safe Harbor served 5,029 clients. 2 went into permanent housing (less than one thousandth of one percent. Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 5/5/14)
    • Which is a better return on your investment?
      • Mention Volusia County commissioner – “Your program will only serve 100 people”
    • We are getting a commitment to change from more and more governmental and elected officials
      • Pasco County is opening the Navigation Center which is housing-focused and is a completely different model than Pinellas Safe Harbor.
        • Four out of five county commissioners supported the Navigation Center on 6/20/17
      • I advise the city of Zephyrhills
        • You don’t have to be a large, urban metropolis to have an effective policy
      • They could have done nothing but chose to do the right thing
      • I am one of the pioneers in police homeless outreach
        • It works (the police and the homeless, once adversaries, are now allies)
        • This is perhaps the ultimate problem oriented policing problem
      • My program is popular with the community. What better way of enhancing community relations?

I will close with a thought from Iain DeJong, a well-regarded homelessness expert:

  • “If not now, when?”

Thank you – do you have any questions?

See more at www.homelessinnovations.com