Can a City Really 'End' Homelessness?

Phoenix says it has among veterans. Next it's aiming for the broader homeless population.

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Reuters

Last week, the city of Phoenix made a startling announcement. The Arizona capital had previously identified 222 chronically homeless veterans living in the city, more than half of them veterans of the Vietnam War. These were men and women who'd been living on the streets for more than a year, or who'd been repeatedly homeless across even longer stretches of time. On average, they'd been without housing for a total of eight years. And many of them were living with multiple, compounding problems: unemployment, substance abuse, mental and physical illness.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said last week that every last one of them now had a roof overhead. The city has effectively ended chronic veteran homelessness, according to the mayor, a lofty-sounding policy goal that no other U.S. city has achieved.

Phoenix did this – prioritizing housing first, then wrapping other services around it – with $1.8 million in local general funds, and another $6.5 million in federal grants. As of Veteran's Day last month, there were still 56 veterans on Phoenix streets. But the city council unanimously approved an additional $100,000 to place each one in housing by Christmas, meeting a year-end goal that had attracted the attention of other cities and President Barack Obama.

On the eve of Christmas, even the White House was touting the accomplishment as evidence that the same can be done nationwide by 2015. And several other cities, including Salt Lake City and Philadelphia, have already been chasing the same goal.

Veterans as a group make up about 10 percent of the total homeless population in the U.S. (or about 58,000 out of 610,000 according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's census this year). But they often benefit from greater financial resources and political urgency than exists to address homelessness more broadly (for instance, in the form of support from the Department of Veterans Affairs).

Stanton, however, is arguing that the resolve and model Phoenix has demonstrated – combining local and federal funds, non-profit, government and business groups – should now be thrown at the challenge of homelessness more generally. As he put it earlier this week on The Rachel Maddow Show:

The strategies that we're using to end chronic homelessness among veterans are the exact same strategies that we’re going to use to end chronic homelessness among the broader population. This model – doing right by our veterans – is exactly how we’re going to do right by the larger population.

Top image of a homeless woman in New York: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.