By Todd Cohen
GREENSBORO, N.C. — On a recent night, Guilford County was home to an estimated 1,800 homeless people, not including children.
Based on national trends, roughly 20 percent of those people likely are chronically homeless, facing severe, ongoing problems such as mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance abuse, and they account for roughly 80 percent of the cost of services for the homeless from emergency rooms, chronic-care wards, police and other groups.
The rest of the homeless population is on the street from time to time because of problems such as domestic violence or the loss of a job.
Yet throughout the U.S., plans to address the needs of homeless people typically have focused on placing all homeless people in temporary shelters, and without the range of support services needed to address the problems underlying their homelessness.
Now, joining a growing number of communities throughout North Carolina and the United States, government and nonprofit agencies in Greensboro, High Point and Guilford County are teaming up to prepare a 10-year plan to end homelessness by addressing the distinct needs of each group of homeless people.
In a partnership involving the United Ways in the two cities and a coalition of agencies that provide services to homeless people, a new task force is being formed to develop the plan.
The task force aims to document the costs of homelessness and develop a strategy that reflects differing circumstances in each city and differing needs among each group of homeless people, says Neil Belenky, president of United Way of Greater Greensboro.
“Those who are chronically homeless need to be placed in permanent housing, not shelters,” he says. “Other people have to be in temporary housing, but also in training.”
The plan also will be designed to better coordinate services provided by public and nonprofit agencies that serve people who are homeless or have problems that can lead to homelessness.
Co-chaired by Beth McKee-Huger, executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, and Steve Key, executive director of Open Door Ministries in High Point, the Guilford County Homeless Coalition asked officials of Greensboro, High Point and the county to name a task force to develop the 10-year plan.
Based on advice from Philip Mangano, the federal government’s top advocate for the homeless, officials of the two cities and the county have approved or are considering asking United Way of Greater Greensboro and United Way of Greater High Point to administer the project in partnership with the coalition.
The two United Ways, which in recent years have helped develop a series of collaborative efforts among public and nonprofit agencies, will recruit members for the task force and push to complete the plan this year, Belenky says.
The homeless coalition, he says, will serve as a source of research and expertise to help document the local homelessness problem, including costs, and to provide ideas about best practices in serving the homeless.
The United Ways initially will recruit members of the task force, which likely will hold public meetings as it develops its homeless plan, Belenky says.
By documenting the cost of homelessness, he says, the task force can look for less-expensive and better-coordinated strategies to provide permanent housing and structured care for the chronically homeless, and temporary housing and support services for people who are intermittently homeless.
“Once we start documenting the cost,” he says, “we will be able to make the case that it is a huge economic drain to the community, and it will be a much more effective economic strategy, if not a social strategy, to place the chronically homeless in permanent housing with ongoing care.”