Yes we can..when we want to

by Phil Anderson

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Mahatma Ghandi  

When a Veteran comes home kissing the ground, it is unacceptable that he should ever have to sleep on it.” Michelle Obama  

I thought it would be good to begin the year on a positive note. I recently saw a news story about New Orleans and their successful efforts to reduce veteran homelessness. Not everything in the news is doom and gloom! We can solve problems when people really want to make it happen. When people come together, in good faith, with effective leadership, positive things can happen.  

In 2015, New Orleans became the first city to end veteran homelessness. On July 4, 2014, Mayor Mitch Landrieu set a goal to end veteran homelessness by the end of the year. He was responding to President Obama's “Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homeless.” New Orleans achieved a “functional zero” level of veteran homelessness in 2015 and has maintained this level every year since then.  

There were a number reasons for this success but the key ingredients were leadership, focus, clear goals, and cooperation from a variety of public and private organizations. In other words, they put aside political, ideological, organizational, and bureaucratic differences to achieve a common good.  

Ironically Hurricane Katrina contributed to the effort. The recovery efforts following that disaster provided experience with broad based cooperation. Katrina left the city with 11,600 homeless residents. The city was able to reduce that number to around 2000 by bringing together organizations and agencies that hadn’t previously worked together. Between 2007 and 2014, New Orleans reduced overall homelessness by 83 percent. But the city still held one of the highest per capita rates of veteran homelessness in the country. Building on prior success they specifically targeted veteran homelessness.  

Mayor Mitch Landrieu was essential to this success. He has been described as “relentless” in working to end veteran homelessness. He inspired others to become just as single-minded. Sometimes leadership is political. Sometimes it is more informal. Of course nothing can happen without followers to do the real work, but leadership is still essential. Where would we be without George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Frederick Douglas, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, John Muir, etc. I am sure you can think of many examples including good leaders in the local community.  

Another factor in New Orleans was the use of a Housing First model. This is a strategy for addressing homelessness that prioritizes getting people into housing without preconditions. Housing First models find people housing and then deal with the person's addictions, behavioral, mental health, or employment problems. The Housing First approach has proven more effective in reducing homelessness than programs requiring preconditions, like sobriety, to get assistance. Leadership is important but success also depends on informed, evidence based strategies and programs.  

New Orleans wasn't restricted by hidebound ideology or traditional practices. They combined a number of effective strategies. They did outreach to the homeless and to landlords. They used federal, state and local resources. They created a one stop center for services that served all homeless regardless of who they were. They were creative, allowing options and choices for recipients. One size didn't fit everyone.   Veterans have the same issues with homelessness as the general population. Homelessness is a complex issue with many causes. But lack of affordable housing, the lack of livable income, and the lack of access to health care, including mental health services, are important causes of homelessness. In New Orleans, 75% of homeless veterans had a disability. A large number of homeless veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and have substance abuse problems. Lack of employment is another issue. Transferring military training to civilian occupations (despite the hype from recruiters) often doesn't work. Veterans are often at a disadvantage when competing for employment. Simply not having a permanent address can make employment very difficult to obtain.  

New Orleans is not the only community making progress on homelessness and veteran homelessness. These problems are being successfully addressed in other places. News reports indicate 78 communities and the states of Connecticut, Delaware, and Virginia have effectively ended homelessness among veterans. According to HUD, since 2011 the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has dropped by 43 percent. It dropped another 2.1 percent in 2018. The work of ending veteran homelessness never really ends but progress is being made.  

What is happening in Wisconsin on this issue? Unfortunately, as Wisconsin Public Radio reports, not much. Back in February the Republican controlled Assembly passed legislation to help fund homelessness programs. This funding was recommended by the Wisconsin Interagency Council on Homelessness, created under former Republican Gov. Scott. Walker. The Interagency Council on Homelessness’s 2019-2020 Statewide Action Plan suggested $3.75 million for housing grants and loans, shelter for homeless grants, and individual counseling services to reduce homelessness. This funding would have doubled the state’s former investment in housing assistance for the homeless. Governor Ever's budget included $3.5 million-per-year funding and was signed into law in July. But this funding has not been released by the Republican controlled Joint Finance Committee (JFC).  

The contrast between New Orleans and Wisconsin is palpable. When the goal is to actually solve problems rather than score political points, positive things can get done. But when ideological purity, getting re-elected, or doing the bidding of campaign contributors is the real goal, the public good suffers. For the Republicans on the JFC, political games are more important than housing for the homeless. They are choking on pennies while the homeless are literally out in the cold.  

How many of our pressing problems could be quickly and effectively solved if our political leadership, like in New Orleans, put people first? With most of these problems we know what needs to be done. But we have been gridlocked for decades by “culture wars,” sound bites, and partisan bickering. With several very important elections coming in 2020, voters need to remember that leadership matters. We need leaders who have the vision to bring people together to solve problems.