In Rockford Illinois – a blueprint for reducing homelessness, 1,050 miles from Concord

Former mayor of Rockford, Illinois, Larry Morrissey shares how he addressed many of the key challenges to ending homelessness at the Concord City Council chambers on Tuesday, June 18, 2024.

Former mayor of Rockford, Illinois, Larry Morrissey shares how he addressed many of the key challenges to ending homelessness at the Concord City Council chambers on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Former mayor of Rockford, Illinois, Larry Morrissey shares how he addressed many of the key challenges to ending homelessness on Tuesday.

Former mayor of Rockford, Illinois, Larry Morrissey shares how he addressed many of the key challenges to ending homelessness on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 06-23-2024 5:04 PM

Rockford, Illinois, was the type of place where for those growing up there, the goal was to get out. To Larry Morrissey, that became a challenge to transform his hometown – especially when it came to addressing homelessness. 

Morrissey grew up in Rockford and was elected mayor in 2005. At the time, national headlines reminded the rest of America what a sad place the city of 150,000 had become. In one paper it ranked as one of the worst cities to live. In another, the most dangerous. The accolades were dismal. 

But in front of Concord’s city committee to end homelessness, Morrissey shared a different story last week. Rockford has achieved “functional zero” – where episodes of homelessness are rare and brief – for both veterans and those chronically homeless. 

The two keys to their success were putting together and maintaining clear data on who was experiencing homelessness in the community at a given time and an organized governance structure among city leaders, nonprofits and service providers to address it with people one-on-one. 

In Concord – 1,050 miles away – city leaders are looking to implement these solutions to address the population of people experiencing homelessness in New Hampshire’s capital city. Current estimates from the city and outreach teams identify 321 people in the area.

In a sense, Rockford’s success in meeting individual people where they are in order to address their needs and solve a larger issue can serve as a road map. 

Morrissey was in office nearly 10 years when former First Lady Michelle Obama announced a national challenge for cities to end veterans’ homelessness. At the time, Rockford had conducted annual point-in-time counts – trying to gauge how many people were experiencing homelessness on a given night – and had a 10-year plan for the city’s approach. 

But these approaches were ineffective, he said. The problem remained stagnant. 

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It was not until the city committed to creating a “by-name list” of everyone experiencing homelessness that they started to move the needle on solutions. 

“That’s when the light bulb went off,” he said. “If you’re going to solve homelessness, you better know the name of every homeless person. And you better meet them where they are on their journey." 

With a by-name list, service providers know the specific needs of individuals they are serving – whether they have chronic illnesses or family to support them in the area. 

In building this list, Morrissey said he did not realize how rich the area was with resources. They had a community action program, they were grant recipients for funding, and they had a human services department and fuel assistance. 

With these resources, they could begin to identify smaller needs and delegate responsibilities among their partners. 

“The key for us was having the city play this role as the backbone agency to convene the partners together,” he said. “We managed the process. That really empowered and freed up our really good organizations and our individual members of those organizations to do great work.” 

The city organized a committee into three tiers – policy leaders, operations managing the list and street outreach. 

The organization allowed the agencies to go from “a bunch of parts to a whole that was greater than the parts,” he said. 

The first goal was to end veterans’ homelessness. At the time they found 117 unhoused veterans. 

Concord’s steering committee has set a similar metric – by October, they hope to find housing for the handful of veterans experiencing homelessness in the area. 

The next piece, though, was communicating that they were targeting this population and working to find housing. In Rockford, the city hosted public meetings where they could provide updates on the process. 

With better communication among residents and service providers and partners, it allowed for people to begin to address issues, said Morrissey, rather than go round and round on the same clients with no success. 

“We’d often times be pointing fingers at each other or pointing fingers at an empty chair of resources that we didn’t have right?” he said. “After we started the new model, collectively we pointed at the list.” 

One person had a chronic illness they needed care for. Another needed substance abuse treatment. A third wanted to be able to watch a Cubs game on TV again. 

Officials identified how many were then housed, and how many had access to vouchers.

Concord’s committee has outlined similar goals to Morrissey’s model – beyond ending veterans homelessness, they want to identify 100 housing units, better communicate with residents, create a common operating structure for partners, and reduce unsheltered homelessness. 

Now, the city’s committee is looking to delegate members – who range from faith-based community leaders to CATCH housing to citizens – to see these goals through. 

“We have a number of organizations represented here on the committee who have been a part of this process,” said Rosanne Haggerty, the committee chair. “[They] are really quite ready to put our thinking and our work together in new ways.”

The city is looking to engage the landlord community to help identify potential housing units that would accept vouchers or be willing to rent to people who are transitioning out of homelessness. 

While the public input was hard at times, said Morrissey  – he remembers a night where the city closed down an illegal shelter operating out of a church and a petition then sent to city hall – these check-ins provided accountability in their process.  

“If you don’t have a platform to have these conversations about what is going on, people are left to just guess,” he said. “Sometimes you’ll get people who will confuse panhandling with someone being homeless and then start associating crime and poverty and then it can be this snowball effect of really negative community energy.” 

Instead, the data points and reassurances that people are working towards solutions can move momentum forward, he said. While all communities have different challenges, there are key building blocks that can apply to Concord. 

 “For a community that has been on all of the bad lists, we were super proud of this,” Morrissey said. “Hey, if Rockford can do it, and they’re pretty messed up, you guys should be able to do it.”