- - Thursday, August 18, 2016

A few weeks ago, hundreds of organizations from across the nation (including Miriam’s Kitchen) gathered in Washington, D.C. to share best practices and lessons learned in the fight to end homelessness as part of the National Alliance to End Homelessness conference. While we rolled up our sleeves to improve and implement proven solutions to end homelessness, you might be wondering whether ending homelessness is even possible.

When I started working in the homeless services sector more than 20 years ago, I had the same question. I would not have bet that ending veteran and chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C. was possible.

A person experiencing chronic homelessness has been homeless repeatedly or for years and struggle with a long-term health condition.

The traditional housing model offered to chronically homeless individuals required that they first get sober, access mental health care, and obtain a job. Imagine getting a job when you don’t even have a place to shower. This model didn’t work well for our guests and wasn’t terribly successful elsewhere either—having about a 50 percent nationwide success rate.

More recently, communities across the country found much greater success with a “Housing First” model through which people who were chronically homeless moved into an apartment first. With the security and anchor of a home, they were then better able to address medical issues and apply for employment.

In 2008, D.C. began its “Housing First” program, and within 24 months, nearly 200 of our long-time guests moved off the street into permanent, low-barrier housing. We housed more people in those two years than in our prior 20 years.

Today, the success rate for Permanent Supportive Housing using the Housing First model in D.C. is about 92 percent and at Miriam’s Kitchen we are closer to having 99 percent of our residents remaining stable in their housing after a year.

The success of Permanent Supportive Housing and Housing First compelled Miriam’s Kitchen to expand our mission from just responding to chronic homelessness to fighting to end veteran and chronic homelessness in the District.

Ever the healthy skeptic, I spent those early years asking lots of questions and speaking with our staff, non-profit partners, and other key stakeholders to outline what was needed to make our mission possible. One of those conversations was with Boeing’s global corporate citizenship team. Boeing had been donating to Miriam’s Kitchen since 1994, and as our work expanded, so did their support.

When we shared our new vision of a nation’s capital where no one should experience homelessness for years, they stood beside us to say our mission was possible, and looked for ways to make it achievable.

Most recently, Boeing lent its Government Operations team to help us build a strategic plan for The Way Home Campaign, a movement that is co-led by Miriam’s Kitchen and supported by 4,000 individuals and 89 organizations to end chronic homelessness in D.C.

Having Boeing – a leading Fortune 500 company that has 100 years of experience in innovation and literally reaching new heights – support our effort to end veteran and chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C. was more than validating. It was a game-changer.

Boeing’s investments showed that ending homelessness is not charity. It’s a problem with a cost-effective solution that saves lives. Their support helped make the case that ending veteran and chronic homelessness is critical to strengthening businesses and communities more broadly within the District.

Additionally, by providing financial support and tapping into the know-how and practical experience of many of the top experts in aerospace engineering, data analysis, logistics and organizational management, Boeing showed the many different ways the business community can get involved.

Today, investments to end veteran homelessness in D.C. are paying off.

From August 2013 to July 2016, Miriam’s Kitchen and other organizations across the city together have housed more than 1,777 veterans. That’s 1,777 veterans who now have a safe place to call home.

And today, we are closer to ending veteran homelessness in the District than ever before.

“As a result of all of the hard work and collaboration happening across the city including with organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen, we’ve seen our lowest count of veterans experiencing homelessness within the last three years: 295 veterans. That’s still far too many, but reflects genuine progress that we should be proud of and deserves continued support,” said David Tweedie of The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

The systems and structures needed to end long-term veteran homelessness in Washington, D.C. for good are in place.

And it’s just a matter of time before we can achieve “functional zero,” where our community is routinely able to house more veterans each month than are experiencing homelessness at any given time.

As we press on to join the 16 communities like New Orleans and Salt Lake City that have already achieved this milestone, we can apply the lessons learned to help us end chronic homelessness—for all D.C. residents. There is no need to wait. Since 2013, we have already reduced chronic homelessness by 19.7 percent and we can continue to build on that success.

A nation’s capital where no one must sleep on the street for years at a time – that is a bet worth taking.

• Scott Schenkelberg is President and CEO Miriam’s Kitchen.

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