Private sector should step up to fight homelessness

When the “bomb cyclone” tore through D.C. in January, it did more than blanket the city with snow, powerful winds and bone-rattling temperatures. It provided a heartrending reminder of how vulnerable those experiencing homelessness are.

At the time, our region’s homeless residents flooded emergency shelters to seek refuge from the life-threatening storm. And as the extreme heat of summer looms, further jeopardizing this vulnerable population, I’ve become even more convinced that it’s time to rethink how we’re fighting homelessness.

According to the annual U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Point-in-Time Count, which is conducted on a single night each January, D.C.’s homeless population stood at 7,473 in 2017. While that number represented a 10.5 percent drop from the preceding year, it also marked a more than 14 percent jump from the start of the decade. With the cost of housing continuing to rise, it stands to reason the homeless population could grow in the future.

The private sector must engage more. We cannot rely solely on the government to address every social issue. Businesses can innovate, are nimble to act and are more efficient. Bringing these capabilities to address homelessness just makes sense.

The common stereotype of those experiencing homelessness is that they are chronically homeless and unemployable because of mental illness or uncontrollable substance abuse. But according to HUD’s 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, only 15.7 percent of the U.S. homeless population had a chronic pattern of homelessness last year.

The majority of the homeless population is situationally homeless, meaning they are experiencing homelessness due to a life-altering event such as job loss, or a medical or health emergency. These are people who often have consistent work history, have marketable skills, want to work and return to a life of self-sufficiency but rarely receive the necessary governmental support services, which tend to focus on the chronically homeless. By committing to hiring these people and helping them find homes, private businesses can have a huge impact on this segment of the homeless population.

In 2014, I founded the Vienna-based nonprofit Shelters to Shutters (S2S). We partner with apartment management companies around the nation to place people experiencing homelessness in entry-level jobs and provide them with discounted housing at the same apartment properties at which they work (apartment properties typically offer their employees discounted housing onsite). S2S works with a number of local homeless-focused nonprofits to identify suitable job applicants

It’s been a tremendous win-win-win situation. Our local communities benefit from a real solution that breaks the cycle of homelessness. Individuals benefit from employment, housing and the ability to advance in a industry that needs motivated employees. The apartment industry wins with great employees who have a retention rate almost double the industry norm.

The apartment industry – with its ability to provide both housing and jobs – is ideally positioned to work so concertedly on moving people out of homelessness. But companies in other industries can play a huge role, too. The apartment industry can provide housing but cannot provide all the employment opportunities to fully address the need. We need private companies across all industries to commit to hiring ready-to-work homeless individuals and to help them find housing.

Our homeless population just needs a hand-up – and the private sector is perfectly positioned to give them just that. Together, we can make a real difference.

Christopher C. Finlay is the founder and chairman of Shelters to Shutters and managing partner at Middleburg Real Estate Partners, both based in Vienna.


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