Socially unacceptable

North Carolina aims to end homelessness in 10 years.

By Martha Are

[06.15.04] – Homelessness is a social evil, and North Carolina wants to end it.

The state is writing a 10-year plan to end homelessness, an effort propelled both by a growing awareness that homelessness has big social costs, and by new tools to track the homeless and the impact of strategies to address their needs.

Homelessness costs everyone in a community and, in turn, the whole community benefits from its effective resolution.

Indeed, contrary to widely help assumptions, new research has shown that homeless people can be among the most expensive citizens in any of our communities.

The circumstances of homelessness contribute to a pattern of accessing expensive institutions, ranging from jails to emergency rooms.

This results in a big bill to our city and county systems.

In short, it costs North Carolina hard dollars not to do whatever is needed to move people from homelessness into permanent housing.

Boosting efforts to address homelessness are new data and research that provide us with better information about how to obtain outcomes that we have wanted for two decades but that consistently have eluded our communities.

Armed with that information, communities can strategically implement effective strategies and see a decrease, rather than increase, in their homeless population.

That data helps the state and most communities address one of the more challenging aspects of a performance-based plan.

Knowing how many are homeless is critical to helping us determine if strategies to end homeless are having a positive impact.

This question is further complicated by the reality that dominant stakeholders have different definitions, especially as to whether or not we should count as homeless those known as “double-ups” — individuals and families who are in a guest or host relationship with another household, and who could be asked to leave at any time.

Despite the challenges, the state has committed itself to implementing various strategies to help obtain accurate data about the number of people who experience homelessness within our borders.

On December 15, 2003, agencies that work with homeless people in about half of North Carolina’s 100 counties participated in a “point-in-time” count to identify their program participants, and conduct street counts to identify people who aren’t coming in for shelter, on the same night.

Together, these agencies identified 9,687 persons who were homeless, including 1,287 children.

Detailed demographic and services history is not known about many of the persons identified on that night.

But of persons whose status was known, 24 percent were veterans, over 28 percent had been released from the criminal justice system, almost 27 percent had been released from residential substance abuse and mental health treatment programs, and over 12 percent had been released from primary-treatment hospitals prior to their current experience with homelessness.

Those numbers are unacceptable.

They also arm us with a powerful tool to show the need, and help shape a plan, to end homelessness.

Martha Are is homeless policy specialist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

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