Heroes of The Homeless Crisis: How Kevin Finn & Strategies to End Homelessness are helping to provide dignified support to thousands in the homeless community
We have gone to great lengths to enable a shelter to provide any level of appropriate social distancing. Some shelters have had to close completely and move their residents into hotel/motel rooms. Other shelters have had to move people who are most vulnerable to the virus into hotel/motel rooms so that the people left in their facilities can spread out away from each other.
As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing, Kevin Finn.
Kevin Finn is the founding President & CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness, Inc. Kevin began working with the homeless in 1998 as a street outreach worker, providing services to homeless teenagers living on the streets. He founded a day-shelter for homeless teens and created several new homeless services programs which sought to break the cycle of homelessness for chronically homeless people.
In 2007, Kevin founded Strategies to End Homelessness, Inc., which leads a coordinated community effort to end homelessness in Greater Cincinnati. Working in partnership with 30 non-profit organizations, Strategies to End Homelessness coordinates a centralized emergency shelter hotline, homelessness prevention, street outreach, emergency shelter and housing solutions with the goal of ending homelessness.
A native Cincinnatian and St. Xavier High School graduate, Kevin received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from St. Louis University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Kentucky.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you grew up?
I am a native Cincinnatian from an upper-middle class family. I’ve never wanted for anything, never lived in poverty & never been homeless. Up through my junior year at St. Xavier High School, I was pretty much as shallow as a puddle; my only goals were to play college football & get a degree that would earn me a lot of money later in life.
For reasons I do not understand to this day, I signed up for a six-week mission trip offered by St. Xavier, traveling to Peru during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I spent that time in Peru & came to see poverty, third-world poverty, as I had never known it existed previously. I returned from Peru, quit football, and threw myself into doing community service my senior year & onward.
For about ten years after that trip, I was searching for a meaningful way of bringing the experience I had in Peru home, searching for a way to keep that experience alive in my life, to use back here in the United States. I was drawn to the Jesuit value of service to others, so I attended St. Louis University and then entered the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, searching for a way that I could be of service. In 1998 I took a job working with the homeless and almost immediately realized that I had found the opportunity I had been looking for; I believe that homelessness is the most extreme manifestation of poverty seen in the United States.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?
On July 23, 1988 I saw the first person who I ever fully realized was homeless. I was walking down a street in Arequipa, Peru and I saw a man who was all dirty, wearing clothes that were all torn and who was lying in a doorway. I’m sure I had walked past people who were homeless before, and I didn’t need to go all the way to Peru to see someone without a home, but the experiences I had had in my first few weeks in Peru had opened my eyes, so by that day I was able to realize what was going on around me, and no longer seeing things through my upper-middle-class rose colored glasses. Seeing that man in that doorway, and seeing all of the awfulness associated with his not having a home, changed me. It would be another ten years before I realized that what I wanted to do with my professional life was work with other people experiencing homelessness but seeing him and recognizing the reality of his situation certainly changed me.
Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?
The number one cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Period. The end. The majority of people experiencing homelessness, in Cincinnati and elsewhere, are not mentally ill or alcohol or drug addicts. The primary factor that puts people at risk of homelessness is simply that housing is too expensive for people to readily afford.
In Cincinnati, we are living in a community absolutely surrounded by people who are paying 50–70% of their income for nothing but their housing. People in such situations are at risk of homelessness and may not even realize it, because when times are good, when they are getting enough hours at work or when they are not faced with any unforeseen expenses, they feel stable. However, when things take a turn for the worse, when their hours at work are cut, or they miss time due to illness, or their car breaks down, etc., all of the sudden their housing is at risk because that is where most of their money goes.
The lack of affordable housing being the primary cause of homelessness is backed up by the fact that homelessness has not increased at the same rate in all communities. In Cincinnati, the number of people sleeping unsheltered on the streets or residing in our homeless shelters has actually decreased by 3.8% since 2013 (from 7,306 in 2013 to 7,028 in 2019). During this same time, housing costs have increased but not at anywhere near the rate seen in housing markets like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles or Washington D.C. where housing costs have skyrocketed. In those communities, as housing costs have gone through the roof, homelessness has increased at rates that make it appear that homelessness is on the rise everywhere, when that is not necessarily the case. When housing costs increase significantly in a community, so does the rate of homelessness.
For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?
Well first, I’d challenge the assumption hidden within your question- we cannot assume that everyone started out as a healthy young person who had a place to live, job, education, etc. In Cincinnati, 25% of our homeless population are children under age 18; another 9% are below the age of 25. So, with over a third of our homeless population under the age of 25, we most certainly cannot assume that everyone got off to a great start in life & only later fell on hard times. In fact, many of the people who experience homelessness barely got started in life before they became homeless.
In 23 years of working with people experiencing homelessness, I’ve never met anyone who was homeless due to just one issue, just one problem. Typically it takes the interplay of several problems manifesting themselves in close proximity to each other that leads to someone being homeless. A sub-par education paired with a downturn in the economy, the loss of a job paired with a mental health diagnosis, the death of a family member with whom a person shared housing combined with a substance use issue. These sorts of combinations put people’s housing at risk & can begin a downward spiral that leads to the homelessness.
Most people who lose their own housing, through eviction or otherwise, do not end up on the streets or in a shelter. Most people, upon losing their own housing begin to live with friends & family, or are “doubled-up” with someone else. And most people get back on their feet while they are living doubled-up & return to their own housing or continue to stay with friends & family. However, some people do not manage to get back on their feet while living with friends & family; they run out of such options before they can find their own housing. These are the people who find themselves on the streets or in shelters.
However, there are differences from community to community. For example, in Cincinnati, which has a number of very dedicated emergency shelter providers, the average homeless person has never spent a single night on the streets, instead going straight into a homeless shelter upon finding themselves without anywhere to double-up. In other communities where there is less shelter capacity, a much higher percentage of the homeless population find themselves literally on the streets.
A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?
Solutions are nowhere near that simple. In communities where the housing costs are higher, often so is hourly pay. In cities with lower housing costs, people often get lower hourly pay. Switching cities might lead to having to recalculate why a person cannot afford housing, but given the increased cost of housing compared to income, people likely still won’t be able to afford housing in another city. The issue is the cost of housing- when the only housing being developed is targeted toward people at higher income levels, & lower cost housing is frequently being rehabbed to be more appealing to wealthier people, people at lower income levels end up with few housing options they can afford.
If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?
I’d need to know more about the situation than “pass a homeless person on the street” to answer this question intelligently.
What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?
First, do not make the assumption that just because a person is asking for money or gas that they are in fact homeless. This is the case even if they are holding a sign that says they are homeless. We surveyed people who were out on the streets of Cincinnati asking people for money (aka “panhandling”) and we found that only a third of them, by their own self report when asked were in fact homeless.
There are certain things that people panhandling will say to increase the amount of money they receive, and one of those things is that they are homeless, but this is frequently not the case. They are often also not veterans, did not just lose their job, etc. but they may say such things in an effort to increase the amount of money they receive from the people they are approaching. This does not mean that people who are panhandling don’t need help or have real problems, but the problems they have may or may not be what they are disclosing when approaching people for money on the street.
To be helpful, provide a person with the thing they are requesting, not with money to go buy that thing. For example, if they are asking for money to get food, provide them with food. If they are seeking money for gas, accompany them to the gas station and buy them gas. I recommend this due to the fact that many people who panhandle are supporting a drug or alcohol habit with money they receive; if you give them food they will eat it, but if you give them money for food, it will frequently be spent on something else.
Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?
What the general public seems to think about services for the homeless is that such services are provided by a bunch of non-profit organizations that are each off on their own island doing their own thing, & that there is very little coordination between the different organizations running, for example, homeless shelters. Unfortunately, in many communities this perception is basically correct. I’ve been working for a long time to change this in Cincinnati, for the benefit of people experiencing homelessness.
My first job working with the homeless, the job I accepted in 1998, was as a street outreach worker, working with teenagers who were living on the streets. What I noticed when I was in that position was pretty much what others perceive. The system was made up of a group of non-profits that wanted to help the homeless, but each organization was sort of doing their own thing. I thought that a higher level of collaboration among the agencies would allow us to do two things: be more efficient with the resources available & therefore be able to help more people; identify & fill in gaps in the system, ensuring homeless people have a better chance of getting what they need.
To this end, I founded Strategies to End Homelessness in 2007, with a mission of leading a coordinated community effort to end homelessness. Within nine years, our homeless services system in Cincinnati/Hamilton County, Ohio was recognized by HUD as one of the highest performing in the country, and thanks to the hard & tireless work of our partner agencies, we’ve seen a decrease in homelessness during a timeframe when many communities have seen significant increases.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?
In Cincinnati, 88% of the people who are literally homeless, on the streets or in an emergency shelter, reside exclusively in a homeless shelter — about 12% spend any time on the streets. This is a very good thing, as the national average is about a third of homeless people being unsheltered, where they are three times as likely to die as a person sleeping in a shelter. However, emergency shelters are chronically under-resourced, perpetually doing the best they can with very limited resources. The fact that most people are in shelters, but that those shelters are struggling during normal times, means it is very difficult to figure out how to prepare for something like a pandemic. The extremely close quarters in most congregate homeless shelters mean that a virus could spread through a shelter the same way it would in a petri dish.
We have gone to great lengths to enable a shelter to provide any level of appropriate social distancing. Some shelters have had to close completely and move their residents into hotel/motel rooms. Other shelters have had to move people who are most vulnerable to the virus into hotel/motel rooms so that the people left in their facilities can spread out away from each other. The City of Cincinnati has also had to use a recreation center as a quarantine facility, for homeless people while they await test results or after they test positive.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
A big part of what we do is oversee federal government funding for homelessness related services. Well, what makes me most proud is the fact that we prevent hundreds of people per year from ever having to experience homelessness. For example, in 2019 our prevention programs kept over 914 people, over 560 of which were children, off the streets. The reason I am proud of this is that the federal government funding does not support homelessness prevention, & the only reason that we even have such homelessness prevention programs in Cincinnati is because we willed it to be so, because we did the hard work necessary to secure other resources to keep so many people, mainly children, from ever having to experience the trauma of homelessness.
Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?
When I was a street outreach worker, all the way back in 1998 or 1999, I met a 26 year old man, who I’ll call John. John was homeless & had been ever since he was 16 years old when he was kicked out by his parents. So he’d spent 10 years on the streets, sleeping in vacant buildings, parks, etc. I felt very fortunate that during the years that I was doing street outreach & working with him, I managed to do a number of things to help him out; securing an income, finding housing, substance abuse treatment services, etc. But in total John was homeless for over 15 years.
Fast forward to about two years ago, 2018, when I reconnected with John for the first time in about 14 years. By then, John was running his own small company, living with his long-time girlfriend, had a home of his own, no sign of many of the issues he’d been struggling with back when he was on the streets. He had managed to turn things around and become a person who you could pass on the street & never have had any idea that at one point he had been chronically homeless.
Generally speaking, I don’t get the opportunity to reconnect with people years and years after they were homeless, but I’d like to think there are many other people out there who I’ve helped who have gone on to live their lives in a manner similar to John.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?
- Volunteer- when people volunteer with organizations serving the homeless, you are helping people out of homelessness. For example, when a person volunteers to serve meals in a homeless shelter, the shelter does not have to pay someone to serve that meal. This frees up dollars that might have had to be used for additional staffing, dollars which could then instead be used to pay a deposit to move a homeless person into an apartment. It is that simple.
- Donate strategically– do some research before you make a donation. A perfect example has to do with what I said earlier about federal government funding not paying for homelessness prevention. In the homeless services system (or any other social services system) there are more dollars available to do some things than others. In our system, there are few dollars for prevention, and many more dollars for other things. Meanwhile, it costs a third as much to prevent someone from becoming homeless as it costs to help that same person after they are homeless. In short, a donation to support prevention activities is not only meeting a greater need, it is also more cost effective. Again, donate strategically.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
- Affordable Housing set aside from tax abatements- local governments love to give tax abatements for projects that build more high-end housing. However many years later, when the abatements expire, the tax revenue that is then realized by local governments is essentially new income that they had not been receiving. I’d like to see a portion (or all) of the newly realized tax revenue from developing high-end housing set aside specifically for the development of affordable housing. In this way, the development of high-end housing could also support the development of affordable housing.
- Local public transportation, there is an issue on the ballot to greatly improve public transportation- single greatest initiative I have seen in all my years doing this work. People don’t necessarily recognize the link between things like public transportation & homelessness, but how are people supposed to become self-sufficient if they cannot get to the places where jobs are available? So, I would support legislation that develops good, reliable public transportation, which is a significant need in Cincinnati.
- Support prevention activities- the reason why federal government funds don’t support prevention is because the federal government puts funding into different buckets, & each bucket can only pay for certain things. Some buckets of money pay for housing programs, some pay for shelter operations, some pay for health care, etc. Well, the bucket that could pay for prevention just basically doesn’t have any money in it at all. We don’t even necessarily need more money than we already receive from the federal government, but we do need to have the flexibility to use those dollars as we see fit in our community, & that means having the flexibility to move money between different interventions, including putting some of the money the federal government already gives our community into prevention. That would really help.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
Everyone has certain things, certain work, that they are drawn to in either their personal or professional lives, work that just comes naturally to them. In a similar fashion, working around issues of homelessness is simply what comes naturally to me. If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would do.
Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?
Homelessness has only really existed in large numbers in the United States for about the last 50 years. Since homelessness has only been an issue here for a relatively short period of time, I don’t see any reason it could not have disappeared a few decades from now.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Luckily, some of these things people did actually tell me before I started…
- “A man’s hand is never too dirty to shake”- I was doing some volunteer work in rural Kentucky while I was in college. I was helping fix up a trailer that a family was living in, & the man who lived there wanted to thank me by shaking my hand, but I hesitated to shake his hand because my hands were dirty, so he told me, “a man’s hand is never too dirty to shake”. This sentiment has come to my mind frequently as I’ve been working with people experiencing homelessness, & really helped me to relax & relate to people.
- “You get more done if you are nice to people”- my parents taught me this, & since much of my organization’s work involves simply persuading organizations to coordinate their efforts, when they have no specific obligation to do so, this has been an important lesson for me.
- “If you aren’t making someone mad, you aren’t doing anything”- our founding board chair, Peg Moertl, told me this years ago. It has been essential to my work to realize that it is alright for people to get upset about work that I am doing, & that in fact people getting upset is actually an indicator that change is happening.
- “Always err on the side of the client”- something I’ve learned along the way is to always give the person you are trying to help the benefit of the doubt. There can be a tendency to, when faced with a situation that could go different ways, to not know what to do. My guiding principal is always to do what is best for the person I am trying to help, the person experiencing homelessness, & this has never led me astray.
- “Surround yourself with good people & then get out of their way”- the thing I think I am best at is hiring. I’m actually pretty mediocre at lots of other things, so the thing that has served me best has been to surround myself with good people on our staff, and then to give them the independence to identify what needs to be done.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think that people are naturally generous with their time, resources, etc. This somewhat frequently manifests itself when there is a natural disaster, tornado, earthquake or something like that. After such events, we see ordinary people stand up to help total strangers who were victims. I firmly believe that the reason so many people join in & help under such circumstances is because they recognize that they could have just as easily been a victim, that the tornado or earthquake could just as easily affected them instead of others.
One of the main things I’d like for accomplish is for the general public to realize that homelessness is just such a disaster, just such a thing that really truly could happen to anyone & could have happened to them. People who experience homelessness are no different than anyone else, & given different random circumstance, that anyone could have become homeless.
I think that if the general public understood this, understood that it could have been them who ended up homelessness, then people would similarly be motivated to step forward & help those who are homeless, & such a movement & collective effort could quickly end homelessness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was asked a similar question back in college, but the question then was what your goal in life is. What I came up with then, and still think about often is this…& I’ve underlined the key words.
“My goal is to be content, feel that I’ve done some good, while still being a play baby”.
Content- I recognize that I have been given a great deal, & while I am not rich, famous or whatever else, I recognize what I have been given, I value what I have been given, & I am content.
Done some good- whether it be the end of a work day or the end of my life, I simply want to feel that I’ve done some good for my fellow man. Doesn’t have to be in a big dramatic way, doesn’t have to have made me famous or infamous or anything else, I just want to feel like I’ve done some good.
Play baby- I’ll keep that part to myself.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Stephen King, the author. He’s almost the only author whose books I read, & I’ve read a few of his stories over and over.
How can our readers follow you online?
I am on Facebook & Twitter (@noonehomeless) & LinkedIn. Also through my organization’s website, www.strategiestoendhomelessness.org
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
Heroes of The Homeless Crisis: How Kevin Finn & Strategies to End Homelessness are helping to… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.