These cities are finding new ways to lead on homelessness February 16, 2024

These cities are finding new ways to lead on homelessness

February 16, 2024

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Cities are beginning to move beyond traditional approaches to the crisis, most often built around partnerships between city-run and nonprofit agencies, to test strategies designed around greater community cooperation and bold leadership.

As homelessness reaches troubling new heights throughout the United States and around the world, city leaders see a need to uncover new solutions. That’s why a number of cities are beginning to move beyond traditional approaches to the crisis, most often built around partnerships between city-run and nonprofit agencies, to test strategies designed around greater community cooperation and bold leadership. 

Whether that means new campaigns geared at shaping and enacting city-wide solutions, using cross-sectoral teams to grapple with root causes, or publicly laying out targeted goals to demonstrate progress and boost community support, it’s clear there are fresh approaches to this critical issue that city leaders everywhere can learn from.

Here are a few of them.   

Bring actors outside the homelessness sector into a city-wide collaboration.

Homelessness has, of course, long been a top priority of local governments, which often partner with nonprofits and community members to address the issue. Less common, however, are city hall-driven efforts aimed at uniting a wide array of local actors in and outside of the social-services sector to tackle it collectively.

That’s what’s happening in London, where—following a precedent set by other cities in the U.K., like Manchester—the city announced in December a charter to end what the local government calls rough sleeping, or essentially unsheltered homelessness. Designed with more than 100 businesses, charities, faith, and community groups, the charter calls on every signatory to play a part, from reporting it when they see people in need to making more concerted efforts to contribute to solutions.

Perhaps most importantly for cities facing what may feel like an intractable challenge, the charter represents a move to establish a shared, city-wide vision for what has to change. And, building on a growing awareness of the need for collaboration in tackling homelessness, it also offers the mechanisms to involve new players in making solutions possible.  

“We helped to put together this governance structure with key local authorities, key charity partners, the national government, and different stakeholders,” says Tamiru Mammo, who consults on homeless issues with London and other cities around the world as part of Bloomberg Associates. “That really should be part of any charter plan: that substantive idea that we already measure together, we’ve already shared data across the city, but now they actually have a pan-London approach to end rough sleeping.”

While Mammo acknowledges that no campaign, in and of itself, can end homelessness, he emphasizes the importance of engaging as many people as possible in a whole-city approach. “You can have lots of different programs, but if they aren’t joined up in a way that models how you’re going to end rough sleeping, you just have services stitched together but not necessarily solutions,” he explains.

Topeka, Kan. is showcasing a different approach to this kind of engagement by drilling further into the details with the community. In a recent round of ideation sessions that included both people with lived experience but also a broader spectrum of residents, the city engaged in a co-design process that is not typically applied to homelessness issues in the United States. 

The resulting solutions—which officials say include tentative plans to prototype a one-stop shop of basic services, new mental-health supports, and strategies to better identify students at risk for homelessness—will need to be vetted by the city council. But they represent an effort to turn worried citizens who file complaints into engaged neighbors who help drive toward city-wide solutions. 

“The end goal really is to have a portfolio of community-driven ideas,” says Irma L. Faudoa, a housing navigator in Topeka. “It’s not just coming from the perspective of local government or social-services agencies, but the entire community, because at the end of the day, we’re all somehow affected by this.”

Build teams that work across sectors to take on a sticky problem.

Part of expanding the tent of residents and institutions taking on the homelessness issue is going after root causes by bringing together a slew of local and regional decision-makers. 

In Alexandria, Va.—a city that recently achieved the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities Certification for its excellence in data practices—what began as one of many pandemic-era initiatives focused on halting evictions has matured into a dynamic anti-homelessness framework.

An anti-eviction task force in Alexandria involves everyone from who decides about individual eviction cases (courts) to who evicts (sheriffs) to who supports residents (legal or nutrition services). And while it is not targeted at people who are already unhoused, the task force coordinates its work with local homeless-services officials—and has managed to find partners well outside the anti-homelessness orbit, like law-enforcement.

“The sheriff really bought into saying, ‘I'm going to be at the table, and whenever possible, we are not going to serve the evictions,’” says Kate Garvey, director of the Department of Community and Human Services in Alexandria. 

In London, local officials are asking everyone from the British National Health System to landlords to be part of the solution, to help attack the problem from every angle. “A lot of charities who don't consider themselves part of the homelessness sector could be contributing,” Mammo says.

Set achievable goals to demonstrate progress and boost community support

A key thread in some of the most forward-thinking approaches to homelessness is city leaders laying out goals that can act as stepping stones in taking on the larger problem. This allows cities to demonstrate progress and build support from new partners along the way. And it enables residents, as well as other city partners in the private sector and philanthropic world, to understand how they can best contribute.

In London, the focus is on ending rough sleeping—a subset of the larger homelessness problem that refers to those sleeping in public. In Newark, it’s committing to ending chronic homelessness in three years. Other cities may be prioritizing ending homelessness among the veterans’ population, or at the family level; social entrepreneur Rosanne Haggerty promotes the goal of “functional zero,” or making homelessness brief and rare. One way to drive toward these missions is to invite sustained buy-in with concrete timeframes. 

“You want to show people that progress can be made,” Mammo says.

Of course, this can create pressure on cities, including from private-sector funders. But if a charter approach like the one in London raises expectations, it also invites the kind of support from across the local population that makes real change more likely. 

“It is risky to put yourself out there, but that leadership is needed,” Mammo says. “Because then people see a committed effort and will support it.”