In any single night in the United States, approximately 650,000 individuals are without safe and stable housing. One in 500 Americansand one in 67 Americans living below the poverty lineis in a shelter or on the street every night. While these numbers are staggering, our nation has made significant progress over the last decade to reduce chronic (or long-term) homelessness.

The leading solution to ending chronic homelessness has been the development of permanent supportive housingaffordable rental housing coupled with supportive services that target the specific needs of an individual or family. Communities have accomplished this by collaborating with key local agencies and stakeholders serving those experiencing homelessness.

In May 2009, President Barack Obama and Congress charged the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) to develop a national strategic plan to end homelessness with enactment of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act. USICH, an independent federal agency composed of 19 Cabinet secretaries and agency heads, coordinates the federal response to homelessness through partnerships at every level of government and with the private and nonprofit sectors.

Developing the Plan

Capitalizing on progress at the local level, USICH began developing Opening Doors Across America, the nations first federal strategic plan to prevent and end homeless-ness. The council decided the development of the plan should be:

  • collaborative
  • solutions-driven and evidence-based
  • cost-effective
  • implementable and user-friendly
  • lasting and scalable
  • measurable, with clear outcomes and accountability.

Throughout the development process, USICH stressed the importance of transparency. The agency encouraged multiple opportunities for input, feedback, and collaboration from researchers, practitioners, state and local government leaders, advocates, people who have experienced homelessness, and federal agency staff. In fact, more than 750 leaders of regional and state interagency councils and stakeholders from across the country participated in regional meetings. USICH generated additional input through meetings and conference calls with mayors, congressional staff, and national advocacy organizations, and through an interactive website for public comment on the plans themes.

Presenting a Bold Roadmap for Joint Action

On June 22, 2010, the council submitted Opening Doors to the President and Congress at a White House event that included four cabinet secretaries and the director of the Domestic Policy Council. The plan has four goals:

  1. finish the job of ending chronic homelessness by 2015
  2. prevent and end homelessness among veterans by 2015
  3. prevent and end homelessness for families, youth, and children by 2020
  4. set a path to end all types of homelessness.

Opening Doors presents strategies that build upon the lesson that mainstream housing, health, education, and human service programs must be fully engaged and coordinated to prevent and end homelessness. Among its 10 objectives and 52 strategies are these tenets:

  • Increasing leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement, with a focus on providing and promoting collaborative leadership at all levels of government and across all sectors, and on strengthening the capacity of public and private organizations by increasing knowledge about collaboration and successful interventionsto prevent and end homelessness.
  • Increasing access to stable and affordable housing by providing affordable housing and permanent supportive housing.
  • Increasing economic security by expanding opportunities for meaningful and sustainable employment and improving access to mainstream programs and services to reduce financial vulnerability to homelessness.
  • Improving health and stability by linking health-care with homeless assistance programs and housing, advancing stability for youth aging out of systems such as foster care and juvenile justice, and improving discharge planning for people who have frequent contact with hospitals and criminal justice systems.
  • Retooling the homeless response system by transforming homeless services to crisis response systems that prevent homelessness and rapidly return people who experience homelessness to stable housing.

Opening Doors represents the first time the federal government is measuring progress against clear numerical targets. The first three measures are population-specific measures that tie directly to the goals outlined. USICH also is tracking the change in the total number of people experiencing homelessness. The two other measures track progress against two overarching strategies in the plan: the change in the number of permanent supportive housing units (nationally) and the change in the number of households exiting homeless assistance programs with earned income or mainstream benefits. Opening Doors and USICH are committed to the philosophy that what gets measured, gets done.

Invest in Best Practices and Break Down Silos

From years of practice and research, successful approaches to end homelessness have emerged that place housing at the center of the solution to the myriad problems facing those experiencing homelessness. Evidence points to the role housing plays as an essential platform for human and community development.

Stable housing is the foundation upon which people build their livesabsent a safe, decent, affordable place to live, it is next to impossible to achieve good health, positive educational outcomes, or reach ones economic potential. Indeed, for many persons living in poverty, the lack of stable housing leads to costly cycling through crisis-driven systems such as foster care, emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, emergency domestic violence shelters, detox centers, and jails. By the same token, stable housing provides an ideal launching pad for the delivery of healthcare and other social services focused on improving life outcomes for individuals and families. Collaboration, then, is critical for ending homelessness.

People experiencing or most at risk of homelessness are in a heightened state of need. The situations that threaten them with homelessness are varied and complex. Challenges are not neatly divided into discrete problems. For instance, getting a veteran into a decent-paying job is tied to transportation, to housing, and to healthcare. Systems to address these specific issues must work together on behalf of the people they serve rather than expecting those who need assistance to navigate complex bureaucracies.

Opening Doors calls upon the federal government to partner with state and local governments and the private sector to employ cost-effective, comprehensive solutions to end homelessness. The plan recognizes that the federal government needs to be smarter and more targeted in its response and role, which also includes supporting and learning from the work that is already being done on the ground.

Strategic Implementation

Over the last year, there has been unprecedented collaboration among federal agencieswith one another, and with state and local governments and nonprofits in efforts to implement Opening Doors. The federal government has laid the groundwork for future successes through better collaboration, better data collection, better use of mainstream resources, and by engaging states and local communities in the plans goals and strategies.

A number of key implementation themes have emerged:

  • Better data collection, analysis, and reporting. Agencies within the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Veterans Affairs are working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to coordinate these efforts. Good data are essential to measuring what works, what doesnt, and what we need to do better. A concrete example is the issuance of the first veterans supplement to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) that HUD prepares for Congress each year.
  • Adoption of proven tools to prevent and end homelessness. For example, the VA has pushed a clear charge out to its medical centers, local providers, and partners to initiate community planning and adopt best practices such as housing first and critical time intervention.
  • Better use of targeted resources. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 helped fund the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP), which has assisted more than 935,000 people in its first two years. This is three times more than projected, with more than one year remaining. Equally significant is that the program paved the way for a fundamental change in the way many communities respond to homelessness, moving from shelter-based systems to cost-effective systems of prevention, diversion, and rapid re-housing.
  • Improved access of mainstream resources. Implementing the Affordable Care Act of 2010 has been a major focal point in the past year, with HHS playing a catalytic role in helping communities prepare for the opportunities that lie ahead. With careful planning now, implementing Medicaid expansion will significantly increase access to healthcare for people at risk of and experiencing homelessness.
  • Increased engagement with states and local communities. One example is the meaningful engagement of USICH and its federal partners with community stakeholders in Los Angeles to increase progress on ending chronic and veterans homelessness.

The federal government has a sense of urgency to work with Congress, mayors, governors, legislatures, non-profits, faith-based and community organizations, and business and philanthropic leaders across the country to ensure that every American has an affordable, safe, and stable place to call home. The federal government invites states and local communities to align their efforts with Opening Doors. By working together and implementing the most cost-effective solutions, we can be both fiscally prudent and set a clear path to ending homelessness.