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How do you end chronic homelessness?

A coalition of human service agencies, advocates for homeless people and political figures say they don't have an answer just yet.

But Thursday they announced the beginning of a broad effort aimed at eliminating -- within the next decade -- homelessness among people who often live on the streets or in emergency shelters.

The project will be overseen by the Erie County Commission on Homelessness, which estimates that as many as 175 people sleep in the streets on any given night and another 600 use shelters.

It will kick off in September, when scores of volunteers fan out into the streets for 24 hours, counting and interviewing homeless people to derive baseline data on homelessness. The street count will be followed by a series of community forums, leading to a strategy for attacking chronic homelessness.

Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, and former Rep. John LaFalce have agreed to serve as honorary co-chairmen of the project, known as PRISM (Prevention, Resources, Independence through housing, Services and Maintenance.)

LaFalce, who also serves on the board of directors of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said it was the responsibility of both individuals and government to confront the problem.

The federal, state and local governments so far have not lived up to their mandate, he said.

"Each has done something in part . . . but it doesn't come close to meeting the need," LaFalce said.

People who are homeless often have a variety of problems, he added, but the other issues, such as drug abuse, are more easily confronted by making sure people have homes.

LaFalce spoke during a news conference Thursday morning inside Harbor House, an overnight drop-in shelter for homeless people at Genesee and Oak streets.

William T. O'Connell, executive director of the Commission on Homelessness, a nonprofit organization, said the PRISM project was part of a nationwide effort.

More than 20 cities have plans in place to end chronic homelessness within 10 years.

"It is ambitious, but somebody needs to be out there and say, 'We can do this,' " O'Connell said.


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