Valley is Poised to Act on Homelessness

First printed in The Roanoke Times, January 3, 2008
By Pamela Kestner-Chappelear, President, Council of Community Services

The current focus on homelessness is encouraging. Without emotion and motivation the trend of increased homelessness will only continue. What spurred this current focus was a report on data collected about the homeless population that was shared with Roanoke City Council.

Those reviewing the data had strong, emotional reactions to the growing numbers of homeless. An emotional response is understandable, especially when one considers that the numbers are not just numbers; they represent human beings for whom the most part have fallen on difficult times through no fault of their own.

The Council of Community Services is a nonprofit organization that conducts human service studies that involve the collection and analysis of data. To effectively address difficult issues facing our community, we must have accurate, comprehensive and timely information. While emotion and motivation are key, we advocate that effective decisions are difficult to make without good data, so a data-driven decision-making process must be used.

The Roanoke Valley has in place a new mechanism to generate and report real-time data called the homeless management information system, which is administered by the Council of Community Services. Most of the homeless service providers participate in the system.

With the click of a computer mouse, service providers can share, in a secure way, information with one another about those receiving services. This enhanced method of communication means services to the homeless can be streamlined, which saves time for the providers and assists the homeless in navigating a difficult maze of services.

In addition, the information system can identify gaps in services as well as duplication of efforts. However, not all homeless service providers are participating. If they did, the data would be better still. It is this ability to track and report accurate data that alerts the public and policymakers to growing problems. Solutions to the problem of homelessness will come about when those steeped in the issue use the data to design creative solutions, eliminate duplicative efforts and streamline processes in place to assist the homeless.

What we have not had in the past, but have now, is the public quickly moving forward on this issue. Data, in large part, confirmed what many already suspected: The homeless population is growing, and we need to do something about it today rather than tomorrow. While we are pleased to see editorials with accurate data from recent reports, we want to ensure that we remain data-driven and remind ourselves once again that good decisions about difficult issues come more easily when we keep data as close to the mind as we keep emotion to the heart.

The current community conversation about homelessness reminds one of the opening lines of “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A 363 percent increase in the homeless population over 20 years certainly indicates the worst of times.

However, recent interest in this issue by many sectors of the community is encouraging.

In fact, if we approach this the right way — by pulling together; collecting comprehensive, real-time data; getting all stakeholders involved; and working in a coordinated way to turn the tide of homelessness — this could be the best of times.