Fort Worth Star-Telegram, October 14, 2007: Looking elsewhere for ideas on homelessness

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By J.R. Labbe

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

For want of $522, the resident in Apartment 306 at Hunter Plaza became homeless. Legally evicted from public housing by constables, the woman was “set out” on the sidewalk, her possessions stuffed into boxes and plastic bags.

Reporter David Casstevens detailed the woman’s story in the Oct. 7 Star-Telegram. How serendipitous that it would appear just days after a group of 22 elected, community and business leaders from Tarrant County returned from a three-day fact-finding trip to study ways to address homelessness in Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver.

Had the Hunter Plaza scenario played out in the Mile High City, the woman’s situation might not have reached this sad end. Denver’s Road Home program, a comprehensive 10-year plan for ending homelessness, includes eviction assistance and financial counseling for residents in public housing. In the first six months of 2006, 156 Denver families avoided homelessness because of the service.

Denver’s answer to the challenges presented by a homeless population roughly equal to that of Fort Worth’s — around 4,000 men, women and children — includes not adding to that number.

Research in cities across the country has revealed that it’s much less expensive to house someone than it is to pay for the law enforcement, emergency response and medical services that the chronically homeless require.

It’s part of the answer that the community leaders who joined Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley on the homelessness study trip will consider when helping to develop a 10-year plan for ending homelessness here.

Homeless in Tarrant

Before heading to Los Angeles on Oct. 3, tour participants were given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the issue locally. A point-in-time census conducted in January by 526 volunteers classified 4,042 people as homeless in Tarrant County; 86 percent were found within Fort Worth’s city limits. More than 1,100 were children.

The knowledge gained from reading the stack of material provided by Fort Worth’s homelessness coordinator Otis Thornton was helpful, but it paled when compared to the tour of East Lancaster Avenue.

A visit to the area agencies dedicated to assisting the homeless can be overwhelming. This is not the Fort Worth that Moncrief touts as the nation’s best place to live and work.

A daytime walk through the Presbyterian Night Shelter was sobering; imagine when the floors are covered with the mattresses to accommodate 800 people needing a place to bed down for the night.

But context is everything. Moncrief and Thornton were brilliant in scheduling the City of Angels as the first stop for study group participants. No one on the trip will ever be able to erase the mental images of what they saw on Skid Row. A mass of slow-motion humanity lined streets and sidewalks strewn with boxes, papers and plastic bags. It was impossible to discern what might have been trash and litter from what might have been someone’s possessions.

“I saw the suffering face of America,” said the Rev. Stephen Jasso of All Saints Catholic Church. “It hurts to see so many brothers and sisters in extreme poverty.”

When compared to the challenges that Los Angeles faces, with a homeless population estimated at more than 82,000, Fort Worth’s issues become eminently solvable.

What works elsewhere

Seattle and Denver provided opportunities to view examples of “housing first.” This model attempts to move homeless individuals and families into affordable rental housing as quickly as possible and then provides the case management and social support services they need to improve their physical, economic and social well-being.

Some of these people, who became homeless after the loss of a job, will gain control of their lives and move into housing of their own.

But the reality of homelessness is that some people — the severely mentally ill, for example — will never be able to function without supervision. Permanent supportive housing offers safe, low-cost housing and the ongoing support services needed for residents to live independent lives. Residents pay a percentage of whatever monthly income they might have.

Seattle and Denver, touted as success stories by Philip F. Mangano, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, have reported declines in their chronic homeless populations of 36 percent and 20 percent respectively since adopting their comprehensive 10-year plans.

Solving the problem

On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stood in a barn in a New Hampshire apple orchard and fielded a question about homelessness. She said that the Bush administration deserves credit for its efforts to establish permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. Providing housing first and then “wrap-around services,” Clinton said, is a model that works.

A week ago, if you’d asked me, “Do George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton agree on anything, much less anything that matters?” I would have said (ahem), “No.”

Today, however, I can say, “Absolutely yes.”

If Bush and Clinton can agree on a way forward on homelessness, surely our community — known for its ability to work together to solve problems — can develop a 10-year plan that rivals anything in place in America.

Coming next week

What local homeless tour participants say they learned on the trip, and how they can use that to improve how Fort Worth addresses homelessness.

Jill “J.R.” Labbe, deputy editorial page editor of the Star-Telegram , was one of the community leaders who took part in the trip. The newspaper, not the tour organizers, paid her expenses. 817-390-7599

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