Though Washington, D.C., and our U.S. Congress can still produce leaders, and I have hopes that our White House will again be home to a unifying and charismatic leader who can inspire our nation, I have come over time to believe that true innovation, catalysts and successful pilot initiatives for societal change more often now ‘bubble up’ from local communities, cities and the states. Bottom-up, versus top-down. One of the more exciting initiatives coming in view and now underway in 89 cities dotting our national landscape is aimed at making homelessness a rare, temporary and solvable problem. Before you roll your eyes and skip to the next article or column, take a moment and look at the work of “Built for Zero. Community Solutions.”
Built for Zero is a community-based nonprofit, structured a bit differently in most every community, with several common themes, structures and elements, but most importantly, each committing to this multi-year reconstruction of affordable housing and social services within their communities. And the best news I can share is in virtually every one of these cities, their unhoused populations are now on the decline.
Fourteen of these 89 communities have reached Functional Zero, meaning that for one or more population categories, there are no homeless residents within their community, and the program includes efforts to sustain that target once reached. And again, before you scoff and think this is solely small, perhaps lily-white enclaves who simply pushed their problem into a neighboring community, there are some LARGE cities, adjacent to even larger population centers who have reached and are maintaining a Functional Zero population of the un-housed.
These include (and the list is growing)
Arlington County, Virginia (just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.)
Bergen County, New Jersey (a short hop from Manhattan and NYC)
Montgomery County, MD (a northern suburb of Washington, D.C.)
First, the community builds a SINGLE TEAM for ending homelessness, this includes nonprofits, churches and the local health care providers as well as local and state government entities which already exist and provide assistance, but now are in a broad, often poorly communicating patchwork, where those in need often fall through the cracks, or avoid the structure. The next step begins very simply with interviews and a census of every unhoused individual, family or transient in a given community.
This real-time and ongoing census is designed to both capture data as well as build rapport and trust. Existing nonprofits and faith-based organizations, already working in food pantries, homeless ministries and other social service nonprofits, supported by additional volunteers, most typically conduct the census interviews. The unhoused populations are recorded and divided into four separate categories, in priority order for housing. These categories are Veterans, Families, Youth and Singles.
AFTER Functional Zero has been obtained in this first population, the community then next targets assistance to homeless families. There can be a variety of mental health and other challenges present here, at times the children will be placed in foster care, but the priority objective remains to keep the family unit together unless abuse or patterns of child maltreatment appear present. And again, once the community reaches Functional Zero again with unhoused families, they move onto the category of homeless youth, a growing population, due to sex trafficking, runaways and the age of 14 for emancipated minors in most states. Finally, if at this stage of Functional Zero, the most chronic and potentially intractable homeless population remains. The Singles often at least express a desire to live ‘off the grid,’ and prefer the freedom and lack of societal structure, norms and mores that life in most communities and societies require.
The object again is to identify and assist the homeless population, weaving together a tapestry and stronger safety net of private and public sector services and affordable housing options to get folks back on their feet, reemployed and returning to being contributing members of society. Homelessness then becomes rare, temporary and brief when it occurs, and is no longer accepted by each Built for Zero community as a permanent way of life. As I have shared in numerous other columns, when an entire community looks beyond its differences of opinion, race and culture, sets and supports common community goals and objectives, and then moves forward in concert, there are few situations which cannot be improved, and few problems which cannot be solved. It takes time, it takes will and goodwill and lasting commitment. Which Georgia city will be first in line?
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