Transforming the way we tackle homelessness

Thursday marks World Homeless Day, which since its inaugural event 10 years ago, has helped bring greater awareness to a cold reality: For the 10th year in a row, more than half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness. And despite gradual declines in the number of people experiencing homelessness from 2010 to 2015, there’s actually been an uptick in recent years—even while the economy continues to create more jobs and wages continue to rise.

The most common approach to addressing homelessness over the past decade has been a government program known as “Rapid Rehousing,” which moves people out of shelters and into transitional housing by providing rent subsidies for up to 18 months.

This program has helped many people regain their footing in the short-term, but the fact remains: Far too many wind up back on the streets once the subsidies expire, unable to afford their rent payments for apartments that are well beyond their means. This owes largely to the fact that the causes of their circumstances have not been addressed, namely social isolation, deep debt, and a lack of livable income.

“After families exit rapid re-housing,” a 2015 study by the Urban Institute concluded, “they experience high rates of residential instability. Many move again or double up within a year and face challenges paying for rent and household necessities.”

Social entrepreneurs Chris Fay and Katy Sherratt saw this and decided to act. As the leaders of Homestretch and Back on My Feet, respectively, they take a different approach.

“The way to address homelessness permanently is to help the family come out of poverty,” Chris says. “If you’re not looking at increasing income, if you’re not looking at reducing debt, you’re looking at the wrong things. Because if you don’t do those two things, you’re not going to be able to be stably housed on your own—with or without a subsidy.”

Homestretch and Back on My Feet’s approach is also unique in another important way: They leverage the power of community to help people form trusting relationships with their peers.

At Back on My Feet, that includes going on group runs three times a week—starting at 5:30 a.m. “Running puts everyone on the same level,” says CEO Katy Sherratt. “We’re all going to do the same thing. The relationships and the normalness of those conversations and that support system is very different from anything else that individuals in that scenario encounter.”

Of course, running is only 10% to15% of the program. Eighty-five percent is practical support of employment, resume-building, credit repair, short-term housing needs, and other career and lifestyle support.

The results speak for themselves: 83% of Back on My Feet graduates find and retain employment.

Homestretch takes a similar approach of empowering people from the bottom up. Respecting the unique circumstances facing every family, Chris’ team provides tailored, wraparound family-style support for two years with self-sufficiency as the end goal—not just housing. They work with families to develop goals, and then guide efforts in areas of debt reduction, education, employment, housing, health and wellness, and childcare ranging from pre-K to college-bound.

As Chris puts it, “The real measure should be…can they stay in the housing on the income they earn? Simple as that.” And by that measure, Homestretch is a resounding success: 95% of graduates are employed with stable housing two to five years after the program.

Homestretch and Back on My Feet have combined to help nearly 10,000 people who were experiencing homelessness. But their impact on society is far greater than that.

“Our vision is to change the entire narrative in this country about what a homeless family can do,” Chris says. “We treat them as fully capable human beings and invest the kind of time and energy that they need to really flourish.”

Katy adds, “It essentially revolutionizes the way we think about homelessness in society. It is a completely different lens to place on homelessness as a problem. We turn that on its head and show that if you give people a chance, a hand up, and an opportunity to make their lives better, they will take it.”

Chris and Katy are showing what’s possible when we empower people from the bottom up by addressing the root causes of poverty rather than focus on treating the symptoms of it. These are just two of the more than 150 social entrepreneurs the Stand Together community supports who are helping neighbors beat poverty and addiction in cities across the U.S.

Learn more about our community’s efforts to help neighbors beat poverty and addiction.

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