|Left to Right: Julia Orlando, Director, Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services, Hackensack, NJ; Karen Santilli, President and CEO of Crossroads Rhode Island; Anna Blasco, Technical Assistant Specialist, National Alliance to End Homelessness, Washington, D.C.
I recently had the honor of being invited by the National Alliance to End Homelessness to present at their annual conference in Washington, D.C. They had learned about the work Crossroads was doing regarding our focus on housing as the solution to homelessness and wanted us to share our experience with others.
Of course, I accepted their invitation and co-presented with Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center on “Moving to a Low Barrier & Housing Focused Shelter Model.”[Download the PowerPoint presentation here!]
Bergen County, New Jersey, has a population size similar to Rhode Island, and has just ended homelessness for chronically homeless individuals. Their county-run shelter is very similar to Crossroads’ shelters.
The barriers for entering are very low; we both accept anyone who is truly homeless and focus on safety and respect for the individual and family while getting them immediately focused on their housing plan. There are not a lot of rules or regulations around who can enter the shelter system, and everyone is respected regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, age, history with homelessness, or religious affiliation.
We also had similarities in our housing focus once individuals and families were engaged in our services. As I mentioned in my presentation at the conference, Crossroads has two criteria for someone to be “ready for housing":
They must be breathing and they must be homeless.
That’s it – if you’re breathing and you’re homeless, you are ready and able to be housed. So we focus on housing and the housing plan to exit the guests out of shelter as quickly as possible.
While I’m simplifying it quite a bit, this focus over the last 2 ½ years has allowed Crossroads to significantly reduce the length of time anyone has to stay in one of our shelters and we’ve increased the percentage of those who leave going into stable housing.
It was exciting to see another organization that had been following this same philosophy and practice of “housing first” experiencing the same results and having a significant impact on their entire community. They had been at it for 7 years and were able to successfully eliminate all chronic homelessness in their county!
Learning about our similarities and differences got me thinking about what it will take for us to end homelessness in Rhode Island. I reflected on the men and women who have been in shelter, not just Crossroads shelters, but any shelter for the homeless in Rhode Island. What more can we do to reduce the number of people who are in shelter or on the streets? Given our levels of funding and availability of affordable and supportive housing (or lack thereof) how can we make a leap forward towards ending homelessness, particularly for those with long-term and multiple episodes of homelessness, in RI?
I’ve often said something that was a common theme at the national conference: it’s not about ending homelessness for Crossroads’ clients, it’s about ending homelessness for anyone who is experiencing it in Rhode Island.
After hearing what other communities around the country are successfully accomplishing in this regard, I came back more energized than ever to continue moving forward with our best practices to ensure that any man, woman, or child who is homeless in Rhode Island has access to effective programs and services to help them end their homelessness as quickly as possible.