Permanent Homes for 100,000 Homeless Americans

In the wake of last week's terrible disaster in Japan, we are reminded of how fragile our communities can be. The images of tens of thousands of Japanese uprooted from their homes and crowded into emergency shelters convey in ways words and numbers cannot the impact of being suddenly without a home -- an event always preceded by some trauma.

The new Huffington Post Media Group at AOL is focusing on social engagement and organizations that help us "give back." While we may feel helpless to assist those who have lost their homes in Japan, we can recognize a powerful new effort underway in the United States to make dramatic reductions in homelessness. Last July, Common Ground, along with its many national partners, launched the 100,000 Homes Campaign to enlist volunteers in communities across the country to house 100,000 of America's most vulnerable homeless people by July of 2013. So far, that plan has brought together 75 communities and resulted in more than 7,600 long-term homeless people moving back into stable homes.

Here's how it works:

First, each Campaign community brings together the full range of stakeholders needed to connect isolated people with homes and the help they need: housing authorities, health departments, not-for-profits, churches, the police, hospitals, landlord groups and even downtown business organizations. Communities then mobilize volunteers to find and interview as many of those experiencing homelessness as possible to create a comprehensive "registry" of those in the most urgent need of housing. Volunteers use a survey tool called the Vulnerability Index, developed with the help of medical and public health researchers who studied the causes of death among the homeless on Boston streets. Most homeless individuals are very willing to take the survey, which asks for information about a person's health history and current living situation. Local organizers then use that information to identify their most vulnerable homeless neighbors and help them move off the streets before it's too late.

The Vulnerability Index is a critical tool for communities because it identifies people at serious risk of dying on the streets. By discovering who is homeless by name, and exactly what each person needs to move back into a stable home, communities learn what doctors already know: homelessness is an urgent -- and solvable -- public health emergency.

Once Campaign communities know who's living on their streets, they can begin matching those individuals with available housing resources. A surprising number of homeless individuals are eligible for existing government housing assistance programs, but finding one's way through government bureaucracies is all but impossible if you're living on the street, have lost your ID and are seriously ill. But by building on informed, assertive housing strategies like the one that has virtually ended long term homelessness in places like Times Square in NYC, Campaign communities across America are helping homeless people navigate their way through the system to find a home, a regular doctor and, whenever possible, a job. These are the basics for rebuilding a life.

Notable Campaign communities include major urban centers that have struggled with large homeless populations for years. In Los Angeles County, for example, 13 different cities have already joined the Campaign and moved nearly 500 people into homes. Leaders from every sector have also signed on to a comprehensive new plan called Home For Good, designed to end long-term and veteran homelessness in Los Angeles in five years.

But big cities don't have a monopoly on housing and public health solutions. Smaller communities with fewer resources are succeeding, too. In Hartford, Conn., the local Campaign team has already surpassed its original goal of finding homes for 40 people, and in Omaha, Neb., organizers have housed 30 people in just five months. Similar efforts are getting started in places like Bangor, Maine; Chapel Hill, N.C.; and Austin, Texas.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that the Campaign is demonstrating is that it often costs communities far less to do something about homelessness than to do nothing. Homeless people rack up huge public tabs in shelters, courts, jails, emergency rooms and hospital beds. By contrast, it typically costs far less to find a homeless person a home and connect them with the basic health, mental health and employment help they need to make a fresh start. Communities like Portland, Ore. have seen annual public cost savings as high as $15,000 per person with this approach.

Once homeless individuals have moved into homes, Campaign communities shift their focus to helping them stay there. Abundant research shows that formerly homeless people almost always thrive in housing that is connected to the other supports needed. For many, the chance to have accessible medical care, join a church, reconnect with family members or go back to work transforms their lives. For others, the mere assurance that someone cares enough to check up on them each week can make the difference.

The evidence is very clear that once people move into homes and have the help they need, they very seldom return to homelessness. As of today, the Campaign's national housing retention rate is roughly 90 percent, which means that 90 percent of those housed do not go back to the streets. Some Campaign communities boast even higher success rates, like Venice, Calif., which currently boasts a housing retention rate of 97 percent.

100,000 Homes Campaign communities across the country, faced as we all are with bad economies and political challenges, are showing what can be done when resources are coordinated to achieve a clear and urgent goal. Together, they are building a national infrastructure for community collaboration that is poised to protect all of us in times of trouble.

To learn more, please visit 100,000 Homes.