It’s Time for New Leadership on the Homelessness Crisis

In this gig, I spend far more time reading and listening than I do writing, and over the last several months much of that  time has been spent learning about homelessness and how people are trying to address it. It’s a big, complicated problem, but the way we talk about it and let ourselves get rat-holed in side issues has given it an aura of intractability. Seattle is a city with money, resources, skilled people, and lots and lots of compassion. There is no reason our city can’t make a dent in our homelessness problem. And yet, over the past few years and even with a State of Emergency in place, we haven’t. It’s time for us to admit that what we’re doing isn’t working, that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is insane, and to change our plan.

There are three parts to comprehensively addressing the homelessness problem:

  1. Preventing the circumstances that cause someone to become homeless;
  2. Helping people who are currently homeless safely transition through and back out into stable housing;
  3. Helping those who have been homeless remain in a stable situation where their needs can continue to be met.

 

The first part – preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place – is probably the most challenging to address. People lose their housing for a variety of reasons, including economic eviction or a change in domestic situation, but many lose it because they lose their source of income that pays for housing – usually their job. People get laid off; companies go under; a small fraction of people get fired “for cause.” If any of these happen in a tight labor market, you can quickly find yourself on the street. And backing up a step further, your health – both physical and mental – is critical to maintaining your income. If you get sick, you may no longer be capable of performing your job (or any job), or at least not for enough hours per day to earn enough income to sustain yourself.

This is a critical point: to sustain yourself in today’s society, you need health, income and housing. If you lose any one of them, all the dominoes can fall. There are risks with all three, and more vulnerable members of our community have higher levels of risk.

Seattle, as with most of America, struggles with the structural limitations our society places on trying to ensure that all citizens have access to affordable housing, affordable and competent healthcare, and a decent job. The City Council and the Mayor have been nibbling around the edges with a menu of affordable housing programs, healthcare programs for the poor, raising the minimum wage and other labor regulations, but none of it is substantial enough to counter the economic and free-market forces that are throwing the system out of whack combined with national policies (such as healthcare) that are beyond local control. We will keep nibbling and attempt to make things a little bit better until the local economic boom inevitably cools off and the housing system starts to correct, because that’s pretty much all we can do — and it’s better than doing nothing at all.

 

The second part, helping the homeless, is where most of our attention, energy, and money are being focused. And by almost all metrics and benchmarks, we’re doing a lousy job. The vast majority of the effort is going into providing emergency shelters and related services, but the way we do it is completely wrong. Most shelters are overnight only, and only cater to the easiest cases: single adults with no pets, no possessions, no partners or family, no substance addictions, and no mental or physical health issues. Even the minority of people who fit that description are kicked back out the door from 6am to 7pm every day – often a bigger upheaval than just staying in the same place outside. In the cold of winter a shelter bed might prevent someone from freezing to death outside, but beyond that it’s not helping to solve the real problem: helping people not be homeless anymore. These are all reasons why same homeless people refuse offers of shelter: either they don’t match the individuals’ needs, or they are more nuisance than assistance.

We know what appropriate aid for the homeless looks like; this isn’t a mystery that still needs to be solved.

  • It accepts everyone, including (and especially) those with pets, possessions, partners and/or family, mental health issues, and addiction problems. That includes youth, LGBTQ individuals, and the elderly. Everyone. No one is turned away.
  • It provides 24-hour, safe shelter where people can retain their dignity, recognizing that once people have stable housing the rest of their issues become addressable.
  • It assesses people’s individual needs as they enter and enrolls them the services than can help them (this is known as “coordinated entry”).
  • It is relentlessly focused on doing the things necessary to get homeless people back into permanent, sustainable housing that meets their needs as quickly as possible.
  • Knowing that homeless people’s issues tend to get worse the longer they are homeless, it prioritizes those who have been homeless the longest.
  • It carefully and respectfully collects data at every step along the way, and uses that data to ensure that it’s successfully, effectively and efficiently moving people through the system and back out.

Most of the city’s current homeless response looks nothing like this. The Human Services Division (HSD) distributes money to over 200 separate programs that form a patchwork of services, impossible to navigate and with little information-sharing, collection of metrics, or coordination between them.

It’s time for the city to start leading on this, and begin by saying “enough already.” It needs to stop funding the things that don’t work, and start funding only the thing that does. HSD should declare that after June 2017, the ONLY homeless programs that the city will fund are ones that fit the model above. Emergency homeless shelters, hosts of encampments, and other service providers that don’t want to be a part of this are welcome to continue doing their own thing – but they will have to self-fund. They have a year to decide whether they are in or out, and if they are in, to make the necessary changes to their operation, including partnering with other organizations that can fill in gaps as necessary.

This will be extremely difficult. There will be wailing and screaming from NGOs that just want to continue doing what they are currently doing. There will be some who say “Sure, I’ll be happy to do more things, if you give me more money to spend.” But this isn’t about just doing more things; this is about building a homeless response system that walks a person in their darkest hour through their whole journey from joining the ranks of the homeless back into stable housing, with the destination always in mind and the fastest way for the person to get there charted out.

HSD will need to reinvent itself to do this. It will need to divorce itself from its traditional patterns, and from some long-term providers. It will likely need to roll up its sleeves and get directly involved in some parts. It will need a different attitude, and it will likely need some different people who are willing to adopt a new approach.

HSD may very well need a new Director. Catherine Lester is an administrator with a big heart full of compassion; she is also an elegant and charming speaker. But despite the Mayor’s declaration of a State of Emergency and new funding, she has been either unable or unwilling to make any fundamental changes to the city’s response. And while she talks a good game about data and accountability, her department continues to be opaque and their strategy (beyond handing out money) is vague. HSD needs a shakeup, and it’s not clear that Lester is up to the job.

 

The third part, helping homeless people get re-established, tends to get overlooked – or people assume it’s the same as what we discussed in the first part about the overarching issues with housing, income and health. But in many cases the issue that drove someone into homelessness is a new one for them, and they need a plan for how to deal with it; there is no going back to their old life. For elderly people, the driver can be the loss of mobility, or a new health issue that reduces the person’s independence to the extent that they need “permanent supportive housing” to assist them.

But it’s also important to acknowledge that being homeless changes people. Contrary to popular myth, in most cases homelessness leads to addiction issues, not the other way around; the same is true for mental health issues. The longer someone is homeless, the greater chance of developing other issues, and the worse those issues can become. That reinforces the importance of getting people out of the homeless system back into a stable situation as quickly as possible, but it also means that an effective response allocates resources to address the issues that homeless people have developed along the way. This is part of a “housing first” strategy: get them stabilized into housing, and have the resources ready to engage their issues. That means that housing needs to be in place that anticipates the occupants will be dealing with these issues.

Seattle is currently under-resourced for these kinds of assistance, particularly mental health and addiction treatment programs and permanent supportive housing. Unfortunately, because HSD is so poor at collecting data, there is no estimate of what the actual need is. We need a true assessment of the demand, and a plan for sourcing additional capacity. There are certainly people today trying to find ways to add capacity, but without a goal and a plan to get there.

 

Currently Seattle’s city government is not organized to make progress on this – in fact, they are quite “disorganized” by all appearances. Their latest flailing is the Mayor’s announcement of a proposal to create a “Navigation center” based on San Francisco’s successful one that in many ways is the model for helping the currently homeless and demonstrates how to execute on the aspects of an effective response that I laid out above. Of course the Mayor’s plan, in true “Seattle process” fashion, involves a task force, an RFP, awarding a contract, and hoping that it’s open by the end of December. Even then, the new center will only house 75 people. That’s a nice pilot project (with a long timeframe), but it’s not decisive action, and it’s not leadership. We’re spending a huge amount of money and investing large amounts of human capital on the homelessness crisis – badly. Leadership would be saying “A year from now, we will only fund shelters that are modeled on the Navigation Center.”

It’s time for the Mayor and the City Council to step up and provide true leadership. Change course. Stop doing and funding the things that aren’t working. Start building a new system based on the things that are known to help homeless people transition back into stable housing and get the additional assistance they need to stay housed. Fire people who are unwilling or unable to move in a new direction. Hire people with vision who want to move us forward. This is no longer rocket science; we know what needs to be done. We just need the political will – and our political leaders – to do it.

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