Gulf Coast (has almost) Ended Unsheltered Homelessness

Keith Wilson

Dear PDX Shelter Forum,


I hope this email finds everyone well and safe.


I visited Gulfport, MS, a few weeks ago at the direction of a friend who helped them reach functional zero homelessness using Built for Zero. Here is the brief on their process and challenges. I believe I shared my Rockford IL visit with you last year. They too have ended homelessness. Working with cities around the nation that have both ended and are struggling with homelessness to find ways to provide better outcomes for our unsheltered neighbors in Portland.


Be well,

Keith Wilson


“END UNSHELTERED HOMELESSNESS.” Mary Simons, Executive Director of Open Doors Homeless Coalition made this her goal and she and her team have NEARLY ACHIEVED IT.


A few weeks ago, Mary allowed me the privilege of spending a day with her in Gulfport, helping me understand that Portland’s challenge is not insurmountable.


Open Doors (like our Joint Office of Homeless Services) manages the homeless services for Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Region, a six-county area along the coast which includes the cities of Biloxi, Pascagoula, and Gulfport.


Open Doors journey to arrive on the cusp of ZERO homeless was so much steeper than what we face in Portland, even with our thousands of unsheltered souls living on our streets.


In 2005, the Gulf Coast awoke after the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina receded, with 50,000 homes destroyed. Everyone in their community was affected, the unhoused were both rich and poor. By the time FEMA left, three years later, they still had 600 unsheltered souls living on the streets and in the woods. Today, they have exactly 54 unsheltered homeless and are working with each, explaining to them, “we want to support you, what does that look like? But you can’t stay here.”


It hasn’t been easy. From 2008 to 2014, they were stuck at about 600 unsheltered souls in their community. They, like so many communities in the US, relied on a “Housing First” model, which focuses on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing. With 100% of their emergency shelters destroyed and not rebuilt after the storm and with limited transitional housing, they really had no other choice. However, they simply did not have the personnel to provide outreach to everyone, every day, to match the needs with available resources.


In 2015, Mary turned for help to Community Solutions and decided to begin the process to become a Built for Zero community. Built for Zero communities know how many people are experiencing homelessness at any time. They know a lot more than that too. They know who each person is and what they need to get back into housing. They know the length of time each person has been homeless and what specific challenges are keeping them out of housing, like not having a driver’s license or birth certificate, for example.


They know all this with the help of something called a “By-Name list.”


The By-Name list isn’t just about collecting stats on each person experiencing homelessness. Taken together, the By-Name list, and the data it provides, give a view of homelessness across the entire community — and allows teams to work toward ending it.


“It’s hard work though…” After implementing Built for Zero and seeing immediate and steady reductions, unsheltered homeless on the Gulf Coast plateaued at 300 souls living outdoors in unsafe, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions. The By Name list had become a key resource but was incomplete. Mary didn’t have the staff to reach everyone, every day. She realized, “…you can’t do it alone.”


The answer came when literally a door opened, and Mary walked into a meeting with the mayor and police chief in Biloxi in 2018. The police were frustrated because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in city funding that was related to police calls to issues related to unsheltered homeless that, oftentimes, ended in arrests (sounds familiar - 52% of arrests in Portland are homeless persons). Mary realized that the police were either going to be a roadblock or a SOLUTION. Her response, “how about if I save you some money?” She asked, and they agreed, to become PARTNERS. The chief assigned two officers to the Open Doors Program and those officers provided access to the entire department. Soon after, the other cities along the Gulf Coast did the same. They collectively began helping her complete the By Name list.


Interviewing many of the officers that were now calling her and her team directly, she found they “hated arresting the homeless.” She knew the officers were charged with doing something, she wanted to give them better options.


There is no magic 1, 2, 3 step process. Each interaction has a tailored response. For example, a Biloxi police officer was at a bus station when two individuals exited an arriving bus and seemed to be lost. He asked if he could help them. One of them said, “I am looking for the shelter.” He replied, “we don’t have a shelter.” They told him they were homeless in another state where authorities asked them where they would like to go. They said, “Biloxi,” were given bus tickets and were on their way.


The officer took the opportunity to become part of the solution. He immediately offered help and contacted Open Doors, who provided a hotel room for three days, contacted their family, and helped them get back home. The most striking point to me was that not only did the officer help these souls, but he also tracked down the person in the other state who purchased the bus tickets, calling to explain how unprofessional and inhumane their approach was to ship homeless to other towns. An extraordinary story about working together to connect people to their support groups where they can be housed.


Mary points out that “partnerships are hard to create but once gained, you can move fast.” With the police on board and helping, the number of unsheltered became less and less.


More partnerships followed. Next were hospitals that “discharged patient to shelter,” (again, there are no shelters) even one person with a newly amputated leg. Hospitals now, partnering with Open Doors, notify them days in advance if someone does not have housing. Additionally, there were 98 veterans in her homeless day center. Mary’s research found that most had completed their PTSD treatment at the VA hospital and were being “discharged to homelessness” from the program. The VA now shares as much non-confidential information as they can with Open Doors, informing her in advance of a patients release so her team can jump into action to find housing.


There is no end to the partnerships now. They extend to every part of the community: businesses, real estate agents, faith-based organizations, etc. Everyone wants to help with the By Name list, sharing with Open Doors, and BUILDING TRUST with their unsheltered homeless souls. That is the true genius of Open Doors and Built for Zero. Mary now knows everyone experiencing homelessness “By Name”, in real time.


That’s how you get from tens of thousands of homeless to 54.


Contrast this story with Portland, a city of wealth and beauty with many resources in our community standing ready to help: 175 fire fighters on duty at any moment, EMT’s, our new Portland Street Response, countless homeless services agencies and faith-based organizations providing shelter and meals, 95 plugged in neighborhood associations, thousands of Neighborhood Emergency Team members, and dozens upon dozens of community organizations helping in all corners of our city. Our police, who are on the front lines caring for our city, drive, or walk by our unsheltered souls each day and bear the brunt of an uncoordinated system. All these resources are disconnected while the quality of life for both the homed and homeless suffers. In the case of the homeless, on average every three days, a life is lost.


Many of us will say, “we have an affordable housing issue in Portland, we lack alternative shelter.” And that is exactly what I said to Mary because we have been conditioned in Portland to believe this. Mary immediately challenged me, “stop looking at the usual locations.” “Focus on solutions: develop a network of second chance landlords that will help with souls with damaged rental histories; if you need housing for sexual offenders, talk to them, where do others live?” The point she was making was that if you argue for your limitations, you become part of the problem. Keep in mind, “the goal is to END UNSHELTERED HOMELESSNESS. We can only focus on solutions.” There is no one size fits all solution and the solutions are as varied as the individual needs and situations.


When you focus on ending homelessness, not allowing the street to be a destination, ever, and engaging your whole community, you can move mountains and care for your neighbors - all of them. I believe, like Mary, we can end unsheltered homelessness in Portland. I often say, the “P” in Portland stands for PRIDE in our city. Perhaps we will end unsheltered homelessness when the “P” stands for PARTNERSHIP.


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