HUD Adviser Talks Housing for Homeless

By Bill Dries

Jennifer Ho said she views her job as a senior adviser to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan as looking at the problem of homelessness like a jigsaw puzzle.


Ho was in Memphis at the Kroc Center this week where she spoke to a group of leaders from Memphis nonprofit organizations and other programs working to house the homeless And during the Monday, Oct. 21, session, she told the local providers that the emerging and continuing federal philosophy is immediate shelter first for the homeless, then a focus on the myriad of larger issues from a sudden loss of a job to drug addiction that could have caused the problem.

“That strategy has really proven to take root,” Ho said, pointing to federal programs working with homeless veterans. “We have a pretty good idea of what we need to do.”

Homeless families, she acknowledged, are not as easy in terms of solutions.

“It’s a lot of different situations,” Ho said. “It isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. … That’s the only way we can tackle it is by having a big picture.”

The federal government’s goal is to develop its plan and its commitment to that by 2020, which was part of the reason for her stop in Memphis as well as Nashville this week.

Ho met with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Katie Kitchin, executive director of the Community Alliance for the Homeless, as well as John Gemmill, HUD’s Memphis field office director.

Kitchin is leading a local effort that has redirected the local response on homelessness to emphasize the need for rapid rehousing that then begins to focus on sorting out the problems that caused the homelessness for a particular person. The effort has focused on finding the funding to make more of that housing available for families as well as individuals.

And that housing is what HUD does. In the last decade, Ho said the agency has moved away from services and shifted to housing, which has proven challenging in terms of finding a stock of affordable housing.

Events like the “Connect” events in Memphis to match the homeless with social services and other needs are part of the local approach to homelessness.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“We know our mission is housing,” she told the providers as she tempered that with plans to coordinate across federal agencies to provide the support when needed. “We’re trying to figure out how we can get other agencies with services in their names to step up.”

Ho has been at HUD for about eight months. Before that she worked for several large managed health care corporations as well as nonprofits that worked with the homeless.

“I know what it’s like to be a nonprofit director managing 13 HUD grants and Medicaid and not be able to find money for dry cleaning to help somebody out,” she told those now directing similar nonprofit efforts called on to address a wide range of issues that vary from person to person.

The Memphis effort has worked on a similar philosophy to that described by Ho as the emerging federal philosophy. It is that simply getting the homeless into housing as rapidly as possible is the answer for those who find themselves homeless from a sudden job loss or another economic blow that is not related to personal problems.

The federal funding the Memphis agencies and efforts are looking for faces challenges of its own from the current political environment in Washington. Ho’s trip came days after the federal government shutdown ended. But sequestration cuts from earlier in the year, an earlier political standoff in Congress, are still a reality.

Ho said federal programs for the homeless that have been spared by the impact of sequestration to date will feel the cuts starting next spring.