Interview with Barbara Poppe

Barbara Poppe is the Director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness.  The agency has the Secretaries of all the departments that have any interaction with homeless people including Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Administration, and the Social Security Administration, Department of Labor and others.  The Agency regularly weighs in on policy issues and has published a blueprint for ending homelessness in America.  She is the former director of the Columbus  Shelter Board in which she coordinated all federal and homeless resources.  She had previous experience as the director of a local Columbus Ohio shelter.  Poppe’s press aide Jason Kravitz sat in and spoke as indicated.

by Mike McGraw

Street Chronicle: Just to review some facts that I’ve learned from the website, or that Jason has shared with me: the Interagency Council was created by the McKinney Act, sometimes called the McKinney-Vento Act, which was an Act of Congress from 1987, and right now you’ve got something like 18 full-time equivalents of staff, and your current budget is about $3.3M/year – do I have all that straight?
Jason: That’s correct.

SC: OK, and the Council consists of 19 Cabinet and other agency heads, and I’ve looked at the website as to what those agencies are, and the Chair of the Council right now is HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius?
: That’s correct.

SC: OK, so Barbara, would Secretary Sebelius, or whoever is the Chair at any given time, be your direct supervisor?
Barb Poppe: Yes, that actually is part of the statute that creates the Interagency Council and it is that reporting requirement.

SC: OK, so how often do you get to meet with Secretary Sebelius, or whoever the Chair is, to talk about running the Council?
BP: The full Council meets on a quarterly basis, and I’ve been in this position about two and a half years, and I consistently meet with the Chair of the Council on a quarterly basis. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, who was Chair of the Council at the time I was hired in 2009, I’ve continued to meet with Secretary Donovan on about a monthly basis. And a lot of the programs that the Council is involved in are in the Dept of HUD, and Secretary Donovan is very passionate about the work we’re all doing to end homelessness.

SC: Have you had the chance to actually sit down with the President or VP in the two and a half years you’ve been there?
BP: We have not had a specific meeting with either the VP or the President on the work of the Council. We do work very closely through his Domestic Policy Council, which is headed by Cecelia Munoz as our primary reporting. And we have worked very closely with the VP’s office, particularly as related to issues relating to women and domestic violence. He has a special advisor on that topic, Lynn Rosenthal, so we’ve coordinated with her on that. We also work very closely with the President’s Office of Management and Budget, as well as some of the other divisions within the White House such as the Office of Public Engagement, and their Communications, and other places. So as issues and opportunities present themselves, we work closely with them. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is one of the members of the Council as well, as they have personnel that are situated in many of our Council member agencies, and those are staff that are also pretty active in the work of the Council.

SC: I think I was particularly eager to contact you for this interview because you come from Ohio, and you worked for a [Columbus] group called the Community Shelter Board for a long time before you came to Washington. Can you tell us briefly how you came to get the job as Executive Director of the Interagency Council?
BP: Well thanks Mike, I still am a Buckeye, and I live in Columbus, Ohio. I am married to Bill Faith who is the Director of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing, so this is very much a family effort. I worked as director of the Community Shelter Board in Columbus, and was approached by the White House to determine whether I had any interest in the position. They were aware of the good work that was being done in Columbus and reached out to see if we could bring some of that collaborative work to the federal government. I was honored to be interviewed by Sec. Donovan and one the President’s Special Assistants, Derek Douglas who was with the Domestic Policy Council at that time. I was convinced that the President and his team are very serious about the project of ending homelessness, and they had a charge from Congress to create the strategic plan to end homelessness.

I was convinced that there was a special and unique opportunity to come to Washington and to help create collaborations at the federal level, but also to work with state and local governments in ways that would help those local communities be more successful. I certainly think of myself as a local community person, and I recognize the work that gets done on the issue of homelessness all gets done in local communities. I also think that, Mike, you’re from Ohio, and we tend to pride ourselves on being very practical and just getting things done, so I was kind of intrigued about whether you could bring that sensibility to Washington and just set about getting things done. So I’m proud to be a Buckeye here working for this administration.

SC: OK. I wanted to ask a little about HMIS, the information program that gathers data. I think it’s purpose is maybe just in part for a census of homeless people in a community at any given time, and maybe also some data about those people. Are you comfortable that that program is getting an accurate count of homeless people in a given community or across the country, as opposed to doing something like a census people would go out into the community and count people, because HMIS would be counting people at the point that they make contact with social services. So are you comfortable that that’s an accurate way to get a census?
BP: So, to back up just a bit, the US Census every ten years does do a count on homeless as part of the census. So it is part of the national census to collect information on men and women and children who are homeless at the time of the Census. So the one thing to know is that there is the official US Census.

The second piece to be aware of is that HUD requires that every community at least every other year do a one-day point-in-time count and those are usually during the month of January. And so Cleveland does that point-in-time count annually, even though it’s only a federal requirement to do that count every other year. And for that point-in-time count there are two components to it. One is there is a count of every person who is staying in a shelter or transitional housing program in your community, people who are actually sheltered and accessing services. There also is a part of the count that is focused on those who are unsheltered or on the street, abandoned buildings, living in cars, under bridges, that kind of study. So that kind of data is collected. In 60% of communities across the country, it’s collected every year, and in 100% of communities it’s collected every other year. So that’s a piece to it.

So the third piece is what you mentioned, the Homeless Management Information Systems, which is a requirement for every community to participate in the HMIS in order to receive Continuum of Care and Emergency Solutions Grant funding. And that is intended to be much, much more than a count. It’s actually intended to be collecting information on not just the demographic characteristics, but on the programs that people access and the results they obtain by participating in them. So it tracks things like changes in income, did they become employed, how long were they in the program?  Did they access successfully to housing? You can also track did they return to shelter, did they return to homelessness. Many communities now are also collecting information through their outreach teams, so they’re including information in their HMIS about people who aren’t accessing any sort of residential program who might be receiving services on the streets. So it’s much more robust than just a single point in time. The quality and the accuracy of that data is only as good as the community’s dedication to collecting that information. So the communities that have the best data systems are those that have nearly comprehensive coverage of all of the programs in that community, that are routinely checking and verifying the accuracy of that data, and then are using that data and analyzing it to understand the patterns, the needs, the gaps in services, and using it to inform decisions and how services get used. And so I think that communities that are doing that kind of work with their HMIS, it really is a benefit because they can ensure that there is a strong case for the quality of the program as well as the resources that are needed to ensure that the public receives services that can help them exit homelessness as quickly as possible.

SC: I found an article from the Toledo Blade from April 20, 2012 that refers to what the article calls the Emergency Solutions Grant, and I think it might be trying to refer to something called the Emergency Shelter Grant, which is on your website. And according to this article, what it calls the Emergency Solutions Grant, that half of the money from this program must be used for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing. Does that sound consistent with the Emergency Shelter Grant, or can you clarify what that’s referring to?
BP: Under the McKinney-Vento Act, it created a program called the Emergency Shelter Grant, and that program continued throughout the history of McKinney-Vento until it was reauthorized in May 2009 under the HEARTH Act. And under the HEARTH Act, the Emergency Shelter Grant was ended, and the Emergency Solution Grant was put in its place. And the intent of the Emergency Solutions Grant was to continue to make funds available for emergency shelter and prevention programs, but also to enable communities to implement what’s called rapid re-housing programs. Rapid re-housing programs came into full scale under the Recovery Act which had a program called HPRP, the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program.

And so as Congress appropriated the funds for the new Emergency Solutions Grant, there was an increase in that funding that was implemented this year. And because this year was the first year that the HEARTH regulations would apply to the ESG program, what HUD did was they took part of the money and issued it just as they had in the prior year under a formula to communities to use to keep emergency shelters and prevention programs open that were already being funded. And the additional money that they made available to communities they allowed those communities to use that resource for the new rapid re-housing program. So unfortunately, there was some misreporting in that story in April, so misinformation and miscommunication occurred, but in fact the amount of resources that are going to Toledo are significantly higher than the prior year. And those resources are available to continue emergency shelter operations as well as to enable program to rapid re-housing. You’re probably aware that the Recovery Act funding is ending through the end of that Recovery Act terms ends this summer. And so many communities are using the new ESG monies to replace and continue some of those programs that were funded under the Recovery Act HPRP program.

SC: So, you think, a city like Toledo, or another Ohio city, you’re saying it would not actually have less money available for emergency shelters that it did a year ago?
BP: That’s correct. The amount of resources available for emergency shelter did not decline from last year to this year from that federal Block Grant. The extra funds that they received were intended to continue and sustain programs related to homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing. There were some other changes that happened within the state of Ohio, based on the Census calculations also affected the formula this year. Some Ohio communities like Dayton that lost a lot of population between the 2010 and 2000 Census, in fact their dollars are now administered by that state, because Dayton was too small to receive their own allocation.

SC: In the Opening Doors document which was put out in 2010 with Sec. Donovan as the Chair of the Council, one of the key goals was to end chronic homelessness in five years, which would be by 2015. Is that still a goal of the federal government?
BP: Yes, the four population goals that were put forward in the Opening Doors plan continue to be the goals of that plan. They were reaffirmed last summer when we updated the plan. The Council just in its April meeting was discussing chronic homelessness and reaffirmed the goal to end chronic homelessness by 2015. So we’re very much focused on the goal of ending chronic and veterans’ homelessness by 2015 and ending family and child homelessness by 2020. The fourth goal is to set a pathway toward ending all other forms of homelessness, which is largely homelessness among individuals who are not chronically homeless, nor are veterans or youth.

SC: Thank you for your time, I know you’re busy.
BP: It’s great to talk with you, Mike. Thank you so much for covering this. I really appreciate the work of street newspapers across the country, and know that you provide a really valuable service in your community, as well as in terms of getting information out to folks, but also appreciate the opportunity for men and women to sell the paper and help them get some additional resources in their pocket. So thank you for volunteering with the Cleveland Street Chronicle.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle NEOCH July 2012 Cleveland, Ohio