Three Big Questions on the Homeless Response

After the last couple of weeks, we have a lot more information about the city’s (and its partners’) response to the homelessness crisis in Seattle. But many questions remain, and when Council member Sally Bagshaw convenes her meeting on Wednesday with the stakeholders, I humbly suggest these three big questions should be the focus of the conversation.

Council member Sally Bagshaw
Council member Sally Bagshaw

1. Understanding that it takes time to put things in place, what resources need to be made available in the next three, six, and twelve months?

Shelter beds, health facilities, treatment programs, lockers, and spaces for encampments don’t magically appear overnight. Lots of resources are being spun up now, which is great, but it’s not clear that anyone is thinking about what issues we’ll face next, or even how to get an early start on the next round of resources we’ll need. The city just approved RV encampment sites for the next 6-12 months, but how long will it take to find the next sites, and when does that work need to start? More immediately, not all shelter spaces are the same, and we need a better understanding of how they break down into specific types to match needs:  how many beds do we need for youth? Do we need more shelters that accept pets, and/or couples, and how many? Should we be deploying lockers for homeless people’s belongings; if so, how many and where, and who administers the system? Do we need additional addiction treatment centers, and how should those be provisioned? Do we need special housing for people leaving addiction treatment? The needs in many cases are specific, and the plans to deliver them need to be equally specific so we don’t miss the mark.

2. What organizational systems are being put in place to ensure the effective, efficient and humane deployment of the collective resources we have now?

While it’s inspiring to see the set of resources being mobilized to address the homeless crisis, it’s not well coordinated today. We have heard from shelter providers that there is no “coordinated entry” process for people trying to get into a shelter, so that a person can be quickly matched with a shelter that matches his or her needs when a space opens up. Is there a plan to create such a system, and who is building it?  Likewise, we know that the city has a database of unauthorized encampments that have been reported, from which both visits and cleanups are scheduled. How do we ensure that outreach organizations, both public and private, have access to that database and the schedules so that they can provide input, feedback, and assistance?  How do we make it easier for neighborhoods to report public health and safety  concerns with homeless camps so that city resources can be deployed? How do we build a better system to ensure that homeless people do not get separated from their belongings?

3. Who’s in charge?

Who is responsible for ensuring that the numerous city departments involved are working together and sharing information, and for resolving conflicts and disputes that arise between them? Who is auditing the city-wide expenditures to ensure that resources are being deployed well? Who represents the city’s efforts to our partners in King County, state and federal governments (as well as NGO’s) so that we can be well coordinated? Who decides how money is appropriately divided up for efforts that require the cooperation of more than one city department?  Who holds the purse strings for discretionary funds? And who is responsible for proposing changes to the MDAR?

Getting beyond “more”

There is no denying that the homeless crisis requires more resources than we have today: more shelter space, more addiction treatment programs, more permanent housing, more outreach resources, and many more things. Right now people are rushing to get more in place. But we can already see the signs that “more” is creating its own set of problems: with this many cooks in the kitchen, assuming that people will be able to self-organize to share information and coordinate services is naive. Along with continuing to think about what more we need, we should be thinking hard about how we do this better: better coordination, better planning, and better decision making.

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