While access to safe, affordable housing is the cure for homelessness, it doesn’t end there. We know there are various factors that contribute to a person experiencing homelessness, including inflation, job insecurity, mental health and addiction, justice involvement, divorce, violence, and health challenges. The response to ending that crisis can be measured by the ability to provide safety, community, and stability through housing.
In 2022, 3,833 households experienced homelessness in Montgomery County – each spending at least one night in one of the community’s emergency shelters or sleeping unsheltered and engaging with street outreach. While the pathway to resolving each household’s housing crisis is unique, we know that anchoring our response in a Housing First approach is a successful strategy for meeting the goal of ensuring homelessness is rare, brief, and one-time.
Housing First is an approach that quickly connects people to permanent housing without preconditions. The strategy doesn’t end with housing, but it lays the foundation for the additional supports a household may need to prevent future housing instability and crisis.
To truly succeed in our efforts to end homelessness, we need to tackle the problem on both sides by putting energy and resources into keeping people housed. This includes housing-focused problem-solving services, conflict resolution, mediation, and financial assistance – and by increasing access to safe, affordable housing so that people who experience homelessness can quickly obtain stable housing.
Taking these strategies to scale requires creativity, innovation, connection, and collaboration. As a community, we need a multi-pronged approach to increase the supply of housing units by constructing new (and preserving existing) multi-family and single-family homes, building stronger relationships with housing providers and property owners, and implementing age-old concepts like shared housing.
Research-backed frameworks like social determinants of health implore us to look at the interconnectedness of housing and the health benefits of safe, stable housing at both the individual and community levels. Homelessness, and the trauma and instability caused by it, has real health implications.
For every age group, people who experience homelessness are three times more likely to die compared to the general population. Adequate housing can be the catalyst for improved physical and mental health. Like milk’s role as part of a nutritious diet building strong bones, providing access to safe, affordable housing for all builds a strong community.
With the lens of homelessness and housing insecurity as a community crisis that can be solved through collaboration, there is room for everyone to contribute to the solution. This includes supporting our non-profit and government partners dedicated to providing shelter, services and housing for people experiencing homelessness. It also requires donations of resources and time.
Other strategies include promoting a housing wage that reduces the housing cost burden for workers and advocating for inclusionary zoning practices that make it easier to create new housing units in areas of opportunity. There are many concrete ways to move beyond awareness to action.
Often, social problems like homelessness seem too big to solve or too complex for any single person to make a difference. Yet, we have learned from communities across the country that by uniting around a common goal, believing the issue is solvable, redesigning broken systems, and taking a collaborative approach, that ending homelessness is within our reach.
Jessica Jenkins is the Director of Human Services Planning & Development at Montgomery County.