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He is a main player in local efforts to solve the homelessness crisis

Josh Sabo
Kari Bedford
Josh Sabo

Josh Sabo is the executive director of Heartland Housed. The organization, which coordinates efforts of groups that support the homeless, was behind the county’s strategic plan to functionally end homelessness in the area by 2028. Maureen McKinney interviewed him this week as part of our ongoing series on homelessness. This is an edited, excerpted version of that conversation.

Can you tell me about what the organization does?

Heartland Housed exists to support the work of the Heartland Continuum of Care. And the overall mission is to create an effective system to address homelessness throughout Springfield and Sangamon. County. So, we do that by operating and supporting what we call the Homeless Crisis Response System, which involves coordinating emergency shelter efforts, street outreach efforts and supportive housing efforts. So through all of those different avenues, that's how we we helped to organize the community to effectively address homelessness,

Would you see the organization more as a leadership position or a coordination one, or both?

Both really. Communities that are effectively addressing homelessness are using a community impact approach, right? No community is going to be effective addressing homelessness, unless it's a collective of all of these different organizations that have different specialties and areas of expertise.

And, so, our role is to really sort of be that backbone organization – that is setting strategy, helping to support the organizations and then helping to make sure everybody's connected and moving in the same direction. So, we lead by setting the strategy and doing that collaboratively, with the community, with our agencies, with people with lived experience, and then we support the efforts to to achieve that strategy through coordination and helping to increase resources for organizations and all of those types of things.

Tell me about the ongoing plan to bring homelessness to functional zero and what is functional zero actually?

Functional zero, it's really a metric for saying, as a community, we want an effective system to address homelessness, that we can trust that when we help a person who's experiencing homelessness connect to our system, that there's going to be resources available to help them into that experience pretty quickly. And so functional zero means that we hit a point where the number of people who are becoming homeless, the number of people exiting homeless effectively gets to zero.

So you want to help a family, a household, a person, in their experience of homelessness within 30 days really, to reach functional zero. Functional zero is, essentially, when we reach a point where we can, as a community, help a person and their experience of homelessness within 30 days is really the driving metric.

Tell me about the long range plan to get to functional zero.

There's a lot of pieces to that. So we have four key strategies that we're pushing on. And a lot of it has to do with increasing the number of housing opportunities that exist in our community. So that means ensuring that we have appropriate, quality physical housing units to help people get into so by working with landlords, by working with developers to bring new units online.

We need to make sure we have affordable housing to connect people to. The other part of that is that these programs, particularly rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing, are the two of the key programs that we hope to increase significantly over five years. We need funding for rental subsidy, we need to be able to help people get into a unit and then help them cover their rent until they reach sustainability and can begin to do that on their own.

And then that really, that sustainability has happened, is supported by case management and supportive services. So we need a physical unit, we need money to pay rent. We also need money to help our organizations hire case managers and people who are skilled at working with people as they pursue that stability. Looking at inflow and outflow, that sort of determines how many of those units we need to create our projections. When we put together the strategic plan, we (said) that we need to create 765 new housing opportunities before 2028 In order to get as close to reaching functional zero.

How far are you from reaching that goal?

That is one of the things that it's a little difficult to measure.Looking at funding that we and the Heartland Continuum of Care allocated, and what we know, other organizations got in 2023 ,enough was allocated to create 98 new Rapid Rehousing opportunities. Our goal was 100, we got very close there. And the permanent supportive housing housing is a bit more difficult, and costly, service to provide 42, permanent supportive housing opportunities.

What is the difference between rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing?

Rapid rehousing is designed to be more of a short- term intervention. A family, a household goes through some kind of hardship, and they need support from in some cases, two to three months, orup to two years, but it can't go past that two-year mark. So, within that time period, agencies are helping households increase their income, and begin to pay their rent on their own, and then the agencies, you know, back away, and that that household is stably housed .

With permanent supportive housing, the households that go to those opportunities, they have to meet the definition of chronic homelessness, which means they've been, essentially, they've experienced homelessness for 12 months or more over the past three years. And then they have to have a disabling condition.

So the key difference between the two programs is that with permanent supportive housing, there's no there's no sunset date. So it's not the support is not just for two years, it's for however long it takes to help that household. become stably housed, so it takes a lot longer. So a little bit easier to serve more households through rapid rehousing, because sometimes it can be very, very quick. But with permanent supportive housing, the households are often dealing with more complex challenges. And it takes a bit more intense case management to get connected other supportive services that helped make that stability possible.

How big of a step forward was the new shelter that opened last week?

For me, I think it's a fantastic development for the community, in terms of really concentrating both shelter services and housing-focused case management services and one facility. That's, that's one big step forward, I think, for us, the fact that that facility is available 24 hours a day, that is another big step for folks, if they if they know that this is a safe place to be, it gives them a bit more of a stable foundation to begin working on other other things that then can help them move towards stable housing.

So I think it does a lot for us as a community to sort of stabilize our emergency shelter system.If you remember going back three years, four years, five years, there was almost this constant, October of every year, the community saying, “Well, where's the where's the overflow shelter going to be and who's going to run it?’ and so that was almost every year a crisis that our community went through. But this facility has the capacity to take on all of that. And so it creates a lot of stability for us as a community moving forward.

Will it improve the situation downtown?

There are still a lot of services – Washington Street Mission and the breadline – are really important services for the community that are downtown. And I'm sure that people will want to be at those places, sometimes just because that's where their community gathers, and that's where their friends are people they know.

When I hear at city council about homelessness issues downtown, often it could be folks who are not using shelter services are dealing with a number of complex challenges. And I think the way that the system needs to support folks in that scenario is really through effective street outreach.

And so, one of the gaps we've had as a community is (there is) not a great deal of devoted street outreach workers. There's a lot of energy going in right now to say how do we come alongside people, who for various reasons, won't access shelter services, and still help them get connected with services that can help them improve their quality of life? And that, to me, is the bigger key to addressing some of those concerns that downtown businesses have and community members have?

What else needs to be done?

I've been doing this work for almost four years now. And I continue to be grateful, hopeful, grateful and hopeful about the ways that our community is coming together to really strategically and effectively provide supports for people experiencing homelessness in our community. From from where we were five years ago to where we are now, feel like as a community, we've really begun to wrap our heads around the challenges and provide additional support to our organizations.

And I think that's going to be the key moving forward. When I first started, I sort of felt like the communities looked at our organizations and said, ‘Well, why are they doing more?’ Meanwhile, they're understaffed, under-resourced and doing everything they can. Now I feel like the key moving forward, and I think the community has begun to understand it more, is that resources have to grow, organizations have to grow. Staff numbers have to grow. And the only way that's truly going to be possible as if this community, you know, supports our organizations and helps them grow.

We're better position now than we've ever been to pursue additional grants and federal funding.. We won new HUD funding in 2023, for the first time in over a decade. So we believe that new resources will come to the community, but to reach the goals we have by 2028, you know, we're really going to need this community to support the efforts of our organizations. \

How much was that?

That's the depressing part. In 2010, our community was getting about $650,000 from HUD. And that's a competitive performance-based grant. Over between 2010 and 2015, 2017, that number dwindled down to $400,000 a year, because our community just wasn't as competitive as other communities.

And so, every year, the way that you grow that funding is that HUD allows you to apply for a new project. And if you're, if you're more competitive than other organizations, or their communities, you might win that, but it's a percentage, so we were only eligible for about $30,000 in new project funding.

So that's, that's the amount we increased. So to get back to $650,000 even takes a significant amount of time and continuing to improve on all the metrics that HUD is looking at. That's sort of why we say this is really going to have to be a community effort to see Sangamon County and the city of Springfield and Capitol Township and other entities really focusing their their funding and doing so in ways that line up with the strategic plan is, is significant, because given that it's going to take a while for federal funding to increase, those local funds really are gonna have to fill that gap to create those housing opportunities and reach the goal in our strategic plan.

Graphic of Springfield and Sangamon County plan to address homelessness

Is there a chance for more funding from the state? I know advocates are seeking $85 million more this year.

It's certainly possible. I mean, the state's increase in funding to address homelessness last year was incredible. We get a little over $400,000 from the federal government. Last year, we got an allocation of $1.2 million from the state government. So the state of Illinois is a significant partner in helping us reach these goals.

And so so that, to the degree that that can continue to increase, we've I think I might have shared that are there and we've had other opportunities that are that are helping us become more effective through the state's initiatives to we're working on developing medical respite care, that we've received some grants from the state to help us kind of move towards a pilot on that. We're working with community solutions, and they're built for zero Technical Assistance Program, thanks to a partnership that the state has developed

.And, and we're also in in February, we're working through another state initiative on what's called a 100- day challenge, particularly around unsheltered homelessness, where a group of people from throughout our community will set goals on how we can improve our efforts to address unsheltered homelessness and then try to reach those goals in 100 days and experiment and test the system.

We've gotten a lot of opportunities to grow and evaluate things and try new things in addition to the state funding through other initiatives from the Illinois Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, that were really well timed for our community. Like we finished a strategic plan and then the state also was doing a strategic plan about that same time and the resources that the state allocated to it really came alongside the work we were doing and helped us to begin moving forward quickly, which has been an exciting thing.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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