Nan Roman knows more than most people about ending homelessness. As the longtime director of the nation’s most influential homeless advocacy organization, she believes that real solutions are within reach. Real Change vendor Lisa Sawyer interviewed the National Alliance to End Homelessness director when she was here in October to keynote Washington Low Income Housing Alliance’s annual statewide conference.
When did you begin working on homelessness and what keeps you involved?
I just wanted to work on helping people. At first, I worked at direct service, and to be honest, I just wasn’t that good at that. I was better at policy, and so that’s where I stuck. That was in 1987, and homelessness had really just begun. I do think that we all have a responsibility to advocate for things that are right and to help people who have needs. The reason I’ve kept doing it is that it has always seemed very solvable to me. We should be able to make sure everyone has a place to live.
Homelessness is getting better in some places. What’s working?
I think that where you see the numbers go down, like what’s happening for veterans or families versus what is happening for individuals, what you see is that (a) they’re using evidence-based practices, (b) they have enough money to go to scale or close to scale and (c) there’s political leadership pushing it forward. Whenever you see real reductions in numbers, that’s what you see. When we cut veterans homelessness in half, we had a whole lot more money, the White House got involved in pushing it and there is a whole tool kit that is being used now. They have rapid rehousing. They have permanent supportive housing. They have shelter and they have services, so the numbers came down 50 percent.
Why do families get more opportunity than single homeless people?
It’s because of the concern for children. Some jurisdictions prioritize people who have disabilities as more vulnerable, and that’s where they put their resources. Other people feel like the first people that should get housing are people who are really ill and can’t live on the street. Other communities think that only after all the families with children are helped can others be helped. Can you say any one of those is wrong? I can’t.
Individuals get what’s left over after other priority groups have been helped. And usually, that’s nothing. You might be able to get something if you have a disability. In most places, you’re not going to get any housing assistance if you’re an individual on your own.
That’s true. I applied for the Section 8 lottery so many times. I’ve been homeless off and on for about seven years. I just recently got a new apartment, but I’m scared of being back outside and on the streets because it’s devastating being a single woman.
That’s true. Experience is the most important thing, but the data also shows that women are much, much more vulnerable to all kinds of things than men. Seattle has more shelter for women than most places. A lot of places have hardly anything or no shelter for women at all.
What do you think Washington state could do better?
I think homelessness is mostly an affordable housing issue or a wage issue. The minimum wage doesn’t support what the housing costs. That’s the bottom line.
I remember when there really wasn’t homelessness. It wasn’t like people didn’t have untreated behavioral health disorders. It’s not like people weren’t sick. It’s not like there weren’t single moms or racism or poverty or all of that, but when someone lost their housing, you could usually get them another place the same day. There were boarding houses. There were millions of units of single-occupancy housing that were torn down and not replaced with anything. So that’s the issue. You have high tech and people who are getting good salaries, and good for them, but it drives the cost of housing up.
What’s your dream for how we can end homelessness?
My dream is that we end homelessness so I can go work on something else, but how do we get there? I was on this bipartisan commission on affordable housing a number of years ago and I thought we came up with a really good plan. It was astounding to me that we got it passed by a group of 20 people, half of whom were conservative Republicans.
The plan had three parts. One: Anyone that was entitled to housing assistance by income would get it. So if your income was low enough, you’d get a voucher. Everybody. Two: There would be a pool of resources for people who had housing emergencies. If all [of] a sudden I got sick and couldn’t work for three months, I couldn’t make my rent. I could still afford my rent, but because of the emergency, I’d face eviction. This would be a pool of money that is not long-term but for when you can basically afford your rent and stuff happens. And the third thing would be investment and development to create more housing. So it seems to me if you did those three things, everybody would have a place to live. It just isn’t that complicated.
That agenda has been adopted by this group called Opportunity Starts at Home. It’s a big campaign [by] the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness and some other groups. People would still have behavioral health needs and job needs and all of that, but they’d also have places to live.
Read the full Dec. 4 - 10 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice since 1994. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.