More than half a million people in the U.S. are homeless, despite decades of efforts to solve the problem. Is it even possible to end homelessness? The city of Phoenix thinks so, and says it has proof on a small scale: Last month, city officials announced that they’d helped every chronically homeless local veteran get off the streets.
While the veterans were just one segment of the city’s homeless population, they’re especially tough cases. On average, each veteran had been homeless for eight years. Many struggle with addiction or medical conditions that made it even harder to change their circumstances.
Part of the push came because of new funding from the federal government, which has a goal of ending chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015. The state of Arizona and nonprofit groups provided support as well. But city leaders say funding, though important, is only one part of what ultimately led to success.
Phoenix used a "housing first" approach: The first step was to get everyone in the program under a roof, and then concentrate on other services. "It’s been a tough sell in some respects among social services professionals," says Jodi Liggett, the senior policy advisor who helped lead the project. "The traditional approach is that someone needs to be ‘ready’ for housing because that’s an expensive resource."
The city also connected each veteran with a "navigator," a fellow veteran (often formerly homeless themselves) to help over time. The navigators do everything from convincing the veterans to accept the housing—not always an easy task—to giving them support as they start doing things they may have forgotten about, like laundry and grocery shopping.
So far, it’s been working incredibly well. Not only do the veterans have places to stay, but the city has a 94% retention rate of keeping them in housing and support programs over time.
Liggett says the success has exceeded their expectations. "I worked in social services for 15 years—I worked in poverty, welfare, child protective services. It’s not often that you can actually solve a problem."
Now the city wants to keep expanding the model to attack homelessness as a whole. "We can use this for youth, we can use this for families, we can use this for the regular general homeless population," Liggett says. "We really do think that we’re onto something."