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News / Clark County News

‘Homelessness is actually a community choice’: Council for Homeless event touts impactful strategies

Houston official shares his city's successful approach to addressing homelessness

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: October 20, 2023, 6:49pm
4 Photos
Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor of Houston for homeless initiatives, speaks to a crowd Thursday about how Houston approaches solving homelessness during the Council for the Homeless "Gathering for Change" event at Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver.
Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor of Houston for homeless initiatives, speaks to a crowd Thursday about how Houston approaches solving homelessness during the Council for the Homeless "Gathering for Change" event at Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Homelessness is a community choice.

But a community can also end homelessness by choosing to work together.

This message hit home to community members on Thursday who congregated at the historic Kiggins Theatre. As these words were said throughout the evening, audience members clapped in response, some letting out statements of agreement.

“Homelessness is actually a community choice,” said Council for the Homeless Executive Director Sesany Fennie-Jones. “The good news is that together, we get to choose to create a community that’s free of homelessness.”

On Thursday, Council for the Homeless held “Gathering for Change: Solving Homelessness Together.” The fundraiser was intended to spark community change by providing examples of solutions to ending homelessness.

This year, the council invited Marc Eichenbaum to speak and share the successes Houston has had alleviating homelessness through affordable housing investments. Eichenbaum is the special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives in Houston.

In 2011, Houston had one of the largest homeless populations in the United States, with 8,500 people living homeless on a given night. But by embracing a collaborative and multifaceted system, the community has reduced homelessness by more than 60 percent, ended veterans’ homelessness and permanently housed more than 30,000 people in the last 11 years.

But how did Houston do it? And more importantly, can Vancouver do the same?

According to Eichenbaum, yes.

“Homelessness affects every community,” he said. “In Clark County, it’s going to take every community to come together and be part of the solution.”

Eichenbaum said that oftentimes when people discuss homelessness, they are dangling on the far ends of the spectrum — either we should leave homeless people alone or we should send them away, out of our communities.

“These are the concepts talked about, but the reality is that solutions are not black or white,” said Eichenbaum. “Solutions are in the gray area.”

Eleven years ago, as Houston’s homeless crisis was showing no signs of slowing, the mayor asked: Why are we spending tens of millions of dollars for nothing to change?

Community leaders got together and realized they were just managing the issue.

“We were laser-focused on helping people survive on the streets instead of focusing on getting them off the streets,” said Eichenbaum.

In 2012, Houston entities came together as a unified homeless response system coined “The Way Home” project.

Then the system created a multiprong plan. The first step was centering homeless work around the same set of goals and strategies rather than everyone working to solve the same problem but with their own ways of doing it.

“We had a bunch of agencies all working on homelessness, going their own way, with their own goals, with their own strategies,” said Eichenbaum. “Now we work as a system of 100 agencies with one single set of goals, one single chair set of strategies, all rowing together in that same direction.”

The second strategy was setting up a Housing First strategy that moved community members from homelessness into permanent housing with no transitional shelter in between. The third unified goal of the city was to house people who are most vulnerable. Community members being housed can receive additional voluntary support including mental health, substance use counseling and employment training.

Eichenbaum also said that community members must stand against NIMBY-ism (Not in my backyard), which defines a person who does not want something to be built or done near their neighborhood — such as a transitional housing community.

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“If you don’t want the homeless on the streets, you have to have another place where they can go — housing,” said Eichenbaum.

“It’s more than just working together, it’s aligning the resources,” Eichenbaum said.

During Thursday’s event, Council for the Homeless also showcased the story of Geri, a woman who once experienced homelessness in Vancouver before being housed through its services.

Houston and Vancouver are not carbon copies of one another. Yet, Eichenbaum said that Vancouver has all the ingredients to alleviate homelessness just like his hometown did.

“Because if not Vancouver — then who?”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.