In accelerating push to help homeless, some feel left behind

The US has made major strides to end homelessness. But by focusing on veterans and the chronically homeless, some worry the effort is diverting resources from other homeless populations.

Published Aug. 26, 2016

Catherine left her husband the day he threatened to kill her and bury her body in the desert.

Ending 22 years of physical and emotional abuse, she packed her bags and moved out with her daughter, then 15.

For a while the two managed, though money was tight. After her daughter left for college, however, Catherine began to fall apart. For six months, she worked delivery services during the day and slept in her 1996 Oldsmobile most nights. When she could afford it, she would check into a motel for a shower and a bed.

Finally, in September 2015, Catherine linked up with community workers who got her a bed at a local shelter. Four months later, they found her a studio apartment in a low-cost housing project.

“I was so grateful and so thankful to God that I had a place. Like, it was a bed. And it was a shower every day,” says Catherine, who declined to share her last name. “You couldn’t even imagine.”

Catherine’s story is emblematic of the success of a federally-led “housing first” approach to homelessness that focuses on getting people off the street and into a stable housing situation as quickly as possible. Nationally, the strategy has helped cut homelessness among military veterans by nearly half and chronic homelessness by more than a fifth between 2010 and 2015.

But Catherine’s experience also exemplifies the challenges faced by those who are neither veterans nor chronically homeless – two populations that for the past few years have been the federal government’s focus.

Some community providers say that while they support that focus, it has diverted resources from the groups they serve – such as youth and families, those with HIV, and domestic violence survivors like Catherine, among others.

“When the [federal] government says, ‘Hey, community, you should be focused on these two populations,’ we have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we also have a system that integrates these pieces that are more oranges than apples, that don’t fit neatly into [the priority definitions]?’ ” says Ed Mercurio-Sakwa, chief executive officer of Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse, which provides housing and other services for domestic violence survivors in the Tucson area.