Two years ago, the city and county created a committee to advise them how to spend federal money for helping the homeless. Last week, its members got together with the people who do the helping.
For the Homeless Services Advisory Committee, it was a first.
“It’s taken a while for it to get its feet underneath it,” said Terry Allebaugh, director of the nonprofit Housing for New Hope.
Last week’s meeting with a dozen or so Durham agencies and nonprofits was also an acknowledgment that there is more to ending homelessness than finding homes, said former HSAC Chairman Bo Glenn.
“This is a first step in the new effort to push out ... into the community and bring to bear as many as we can, mainstream providers, homeless providers, medical providers to come in and participate,” he said.
At first glance, that might seem overdue. The city and county governments created HSAC in 2011 to coordinate efforts to end homelessness generally and, specifically, to decide who would get money from the annual Continuum of Care and Emergency Solutions federal grant programs. Those programs bring Durham about $1.2 million a year.
HSAC’s creation came after a 2010 report by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants that called for a “reset” of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Durham. The city and county had followed several hundred other U.S. communities in adopting such a plan in 2007, but after three years the accountants found it had accomplished little, and lacked leadership, coordination and any clear sense of purpose.
Direction was transferred from an independent contractor, the Durham Affordable Housing Coalition, to the city’s Community Services Department, with a volunteer advisory and coordinating board, HSAC. HSAC’s exact purpose and authority, though, was unclear, and its members spent months debating, drafting and working out just what it was to do and how to go about it.
“Just by the nature of having a group doesn’t mean it’s organized,” said Chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown. “It took that long to get the organizational structure together.”
In the meantime, HSAC did make funding decisions and, most recently, studied and recommended changes in the city’s controversial regulations on roadside panhandling. At the same time, the federal Housing and Urban Development authorities were sending down new and revised policies for those who administered its grants.
Most recently, HUD directed HSAC and its counterparts to involve “mainstream” local agencies that affect homeless people although homelessness is not their particular business, Glenn said. Transit systems, for example.
A resident Glenn knew at Urban Ministries of Durham was able to use the free Bull City Connector to go for chemotherapy at Duke Hospital. “It’s a medical transportation resource that resulted in him getting better care, getting quicker cure, getting off the street,” Glenn said. “If he had to rely on his own two feet or pay cab fare it would never happen.”
For many other people who are ill and homeless, though, getting to a hospital may mean an hour’s ride and several transfers – if they have bus fare. Many don’t, and end up calling for ambulances, which are expensive and serve at public expense. Dedicated bus service might save money, and help the homeless get well, sheltered and self-supporting – but it’s not an area conventionally considering in alleviating homelessness, he said.
“So, there are those solutions we haven’t been looking at. As we look outward into mainstream ... there are ways of working together than will provide benefits and save money.”
According to HUD, looking beyond housing and shelter has paid off in cities that have tried it, hence the policy sent down to Durham. Last week’s joint meeting with staff and board members in the long-established Council to End Homelessness in Durham – a group of nonprofits and local government offices – was a first move toward compliance and reaching out, Glenn and Forte-Brown said.
“It’s a step in the evolution” of dealing with homelessness,” said Allebaugh, who founded Housing for New Hope in 1992. His agency and others have had their own successes in helping homeless individuals off the streets, “but what matters is how we’re doing as a community.”