Ending Homelessness: Conference Emphasizes Solutions
By Rebecca A. Clay
About 20 percent of homeless people spend more than 2 or 3 weeks
on the streets, according to the SAMHSA-funded National Resource
Center on Homelessness and Mental Illness. Although the lack of
affordable housing obviously plays a key role in chronic homelessness,
so do mental illness and substance abuse.
Approximately 800 service providers, consumers of mental health
and substance abuse treatment services, and policymakers gathered
in Washington, DC, in December to learn more about serving this
vulnerable population. Hosted by SAMHSA's Center for Mental Health
Services (CMHS), the conference was cosponsored by all three SAMHSA
Centers, the Health Resources and Services Administration's Bureau
of Primary Health Care, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,
and several nonprofit organizations. "We Can Do This! Ending
Homelessness for People with Mental Illnesses and/or Substance Use
Disorders" was the first national training conference of its
kind. In addition to tours of local programs, the conference featured
workshops on topics such as mental health and substance abuse treatment
services, supportive housing, Federal initiatives, and advocacy
efforts. A special preconference institute offered participants
training in "Homelessness 101: At the Nexus of Mental Illness
and Substance Use Disorders."
"For too many years, too many people considered homelessness
the result of individuals' character flaws rather than treatable
illnesses going untreated," said SAMHSA Administrator Charles
G. Curie, M.A., A.C.S.W., in welcoming the participants. "I'm
gratified to see the tremendous response to this conference. It
tells me that people are really committed to doing something about
Sister Mary Scullion, M.S.W., of Project HOME in Philadelphia,
delivered the keynote address. She noted that the field had made
remarkable progress over the last 25 years. For example, CMHS has
identified effective strategies for integrating homeless people
back into the mainstream. Grassroots activists have built housing,
lobbied Congress, and won courtroom battles against discrimination.
And homeless people themselves have left the streets and become
productive members of society in jobs such as nurses, teachers,
administrators, and organizers.
Three key elements remain in the fight against homelessness, said
Sister Mary. First, there's an urgent need for affordable housing.
Providing services to people with mental illness living on the streets
costs just as much as providing them with supportive housing, she
said, citing a recent study by Dennis P. Culhane, Ph.D., of the
University of Pennsylvania. Providing such housing also has a positive
effect on everything from residents' employment prospects to neighborhood
Second, all levels of government need to address the problem of
discrimination in health care and housing. Third, the Nation must
commit to ending poverty.
"We will never end homelessness unless we really struggle
to end its root cause," said Sister Mary. "That is poverty."
To achieve these goals, she added, activists will have to expand
their coalitions, engage the media, educate policymakers and the
public, and combat apathy.
Luncheon speaker Nan Roman, M.S., president of the National Alliance
to End Homelessness, said that current approaches to ending homelessness
aren't working. She noted that the number of homeless people has
actually been increasing along with the amount of money spent on
In response, the Alliance has developed a plan for ending homelessness
within the next decade. The Alliance wants to "close the front
door" into the homeless assistance system and stop prisons,
hospitals, and other institutions from discharging people into shelters.
The Alliance also wants to "open the back door" by getting
homeless people the affordable housing and higher incomes they need
to get off the streets. In the meantime, the goal is to create 200,000
units of permanent, supportive housing across the Nation—a
challenge that will require obtaining more public support, enhancing
the capacity of nonprofit and community development organizations,
and using incentives to get the private sector involved.
"Ending homelessness is a doable proposition," Ms. Roman
said. "We can turn the tide."
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