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Winning the war on homelessness: Community initiatives

The partnership between Duluth and St. Louis County in the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, created three years ago, is working to reduce street and long-term homelessness. The results are visible and quantifiable in the 14 percent reduction in ...

The partnership between Duluth and St. Louis County in the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, created three years ago, is working to reduce street and long-term homelessness. The results are visible and quantifiable in the 14 percent reduction in chronic homelessness.

That achievement is part of a national partnership with the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal agency responsible for creating a national strategy to reduce and end homelessness. There are now more than 650 communities, cities and counties partnered in 350 10-year plans that dare to put the verb "end" together with the noun "homelessness."

What may have seemed a foolish and naive approach seven years ago has led to the first documented national reduction in street and chronic homelessness. Strategic plans are working. Research and data gathered between 2005 and 2007 reveal an unprecedented 30 percent reduction in chronic homelessness around the country.

What is making the difference?

One thing is jurisdictional leadership. Ten-year plans in cities and counties across our country are owned by county commissioners and mayors. Whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City or Mayor R.T. Rybak in Minneapolis, jurisdictional CEOs are investing their political will.

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In Duluth, Mayor Don Ness, the City Council and the St. Louis County Board are committed to ending homelessness. That leadership of political will ensures plans will not be relegated to shelves, but rather strategically implemented.

Every level of government and the private sector have partnered. The past quarter-century taught that no one level of government can tackle homelessness. Duluth and St. Louis County are partnered with the state of Minnesota's 10-Year Plan, as well as with federal initiatives, which include seven years of record resources targeted to homeless people. That's been good for the city, the county and the state. Over the past five years, more than $11 million has come to Duluth and St. Louis County from federal agencies to end homelessness. And more is invested from increased state resources.

The private sector also is partnered through 10-year plans, ensuring that nonprofits, faith, business, and philanthropic resources are invested with the intent of results. The United Way has been an example of a renewed commitment to end homelessness that has refocused its resources on community impact and outcomes.

Also making a difference is a reframing of homelessness in a business approach. Also learned in the past 25 years is that if good intentions, well-meaning programs and humanitarian gestures could end homelessness, the problem would have been history decades ago. They can't. The new business frame evolves the response from simply serving homeless people to solving individual homelessness. That evolution has captured the imagination of our country and inspires every 10-year plan.

Nothing informs the new business approach and drives political and civic will across our country more than cost-benefit analysis studies that reveal the chronic homeless population is very expensive in randomly ricocheting through health and law-enforcement systems. We have learned that the intervention of permanent supportive housing, which literally ends people's homelessness, is less expensive than sustaining our neighbors on our streets or in our shelters.

Duluth's New San Marco housing, recently developed for the most disabled and vulnerable homeless citizens, has created dramatic reductions in costly services. Following the first year of tenancy for 30 residents, there has been a 90 percent reduction in the use of detoxification services (a savings of $236 per night), and police interventions are down 75 percent. Jail time is down 95 percent (at a savings of $116 per day), emergency room visits are down 70 percent (they average $800 per visit), and costly hospitalizations are down significantly.

Innovations to move beyond funding programs to investing in solutions also are making a difference in ending homelessness. Whether rapid re-housing efforts to place homeless people in permanent housing orProject Homeless Connect (the one-day, one-stop, services-offered-all-under-one-roof program), which was offered recently at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, the tools we have to solve the problem have evolved. We now invest in field-tested, evidence-based strategies that offer accountability, results and cost-effective solutions.

Informed by these new approaches, we have moved beyond the failed policies and good intentions of the past to implement and initiate the solutions of the future.

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Who would have guessed seven years ago that the 10-year plans, seemingly naive, would result in headlines like this: "Resources up, street homelessness down"?

These are the very strategies that now need to be put in place for families who are falling into homelessness from foreclosure or job loss. Let's not reinvent the wheel. Let's implement what works.

The public and private sectors are partnered with community stakeholders, and all are to be commended for their resolve. Their commitments have shaped a strategy that is good for the community, good for homeless people and good for taxpayers. That's a trifecta that's hard to come by in public policy. We're ensuring that the quality of life for all in the community -- housed and homeless alike -- is being improved.

Philip F. Mangano is executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington, D.C. He was appointed by President Bush in 2002 to reduce and end homelessness in our nation beginning with a prioritization of those on the streets and long term in shelters. Steve O'Neil of Duluth is a St. Louis County commissioner.

Related Topics: HOMELESSNESS
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