Opinion Columns & Blogs

Believing an end to homelessness is possible

Homelessness is often casually referred to as an intractable, insolvable problem. In conversation, you’ll often hear people say, well, of course we can’t really end it.

I work at SideWalk, a 2-year-old program I helped build that moves people from the streets or shelters to their own homes. At SideWalk, we believe we can end homelessness — it’s our mission, and we’re serious about it.

Last year we began something called the 100 Homes Campaign — on our second anniversary we decided to set a goal of housing 100 people in a year, using rapid rehousing (a combination of rental assistance and case management). We made our goal — in 11 months — and the average cost to house a client was $1,200, total.

More than a year later, we are going through the files of each of these clients to see what we can learn from this, and have come across some astounding results:

 • 71 percent of clients were unsheltered at program entry.

 • 37 percent of clients were chronically homeless.

 • 67 percent had a disability.

 • 44 percent had mental illness.

 • 24 percent had more than one disability type (physical, mental, substance abuse).

This gives us so much hope. Where we are often told that those with disabilities, mental health problems and more can’t be helped, we’re seeing that they can. We’re seeing them be helped, and we’re seeing them help themselves.

And when you ask them what they want, they tell you: They want a home to go to, where they can close the door and be warm and safe. This is what they want, and we can help them get it.

Our program director, Phil Owen, often says that rapid rehousing is much like handing a bottle of water to someone who is nearing the end of a marathon. Our clients do most of the work themselves.

When we ask them about their success, they know how hard they’ve worked, and they’re very grateful for the help. But when asked about what helped them the most, it’s not the rental assistance they mention first. Universally, our successful clients credit the belief we have in them.

They thank their advocates for being on their side. They tell us that it’s been too long since someone asked them what they wanted. They express profound appreciation for the fact that people volunteer to help them, and make such a profound difference.

Beyond that, every SideWalk success story is different. Some people are able to work, some are in job retraining programs, some are going back to school. Some are living in rooms in other people’s houses, some are sharing apartments with each other, some are living in clean and sober housing.

On Feb. 13, a group of women went out to dinner with their landlord at Anthony’s — they were celebrating a year in their home. The women were all SideWalk clients who moved into their new home last year on Valentine’s Day. Together, they’re celebrating what’s possible.

Let me be clear on the fact that most of the work here was not done by me — I’ve spent the last few years being the person whose job it is to tell these stories. The hard work has been done by volunteers — a small army of folks trained by us who walk side by side with clients until they find a home. The volunteers are our leaders in what is possible — they push our program to do as much as we can, every day.

Most of this work stems from the idea that everyone should have housing first. Once you are in home, it’s much easier to sort out what you need, be it counseling, medical attention or worker retraining. In the calendar year 2013 we used rapid rehousing to serve 128 people — that’s 128 new sets of keys that opened the doors to the lives our clients have wanted for so long.

The rest is up to them, with some help and advice from us and from the rest of their networks. Most people who are housed don’t become homeless — and with our current retention rate, more than 90 percent of those 128 people will stay in their homes and be tenants, customers, taxpayers, students, workers and so much more.

In 2014 SideWalk is on track to use rapid rehousing to serve many more. Together we can end homelessness. This benefits all of us.

Emma Margraf is a writer, Director of Community Outreach for Sidewalk, a foster parent and a CASA. She can be reached at margrafemma@gmail.com.