Efforts by the King County Committee to End Homelessness succeeded in housing more than 4,700 homeless individuals in 2009 and helping more than 5,000 residents in need of emergency funds stay in their homes instead of being evicted. These are impressive numbers, especially when added to committee totals for 2008: 4,600 individuals housed and nearly 5,000 saved from losing their homes.
But King County’s January 2010 One Night Count showed just a 5 percent decline since 2009 in the number of people sleeping outside or in emergency shelters, while Pierce County's point-in-time (PIT) figures showed a decrease of 13 per cent, and Spokane County's a decline of 15 per cent.
The slower progress in King County raises questions deserving exploration, about whether local strategies for ending homelessness, and the levels of coordination in carrying out those strategies, measure up to approaches around the state and nationally.
PIT counts are rough snapshots, not always comparable because factors such as housing availability differ in each area. And as James D. Wright says in Address Unknown: The Homeless in America, given “a poor economy and continuing deterioration of the low income housing supply,...no matter how rapidly we can get people to exit the homeless condition, there are legions waiting in the wings of economic uncertainty to take their place.”
For example, in Washington in 2009, 30 percent of residents were unemployed or underemployed, according to the state Budget and Policy Center. The 2009 Affordable Housing Report from the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance shows that around the state, many veterans, disabled individuals, and retired workers (among others) could not afford market-level rents. Reports this month from United Way of King County indicate that rising numbers of citizens need help with basics like housing and food.
Yet as needs surge and public dollars dwindle, is King County responding well to new federal calls for system change, meant to ensure that proven best practices are used around the country in addressing homelessness?
Last month's ten-year-plan forum in Yakima featured discussions of new demands from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH). One is to gather more robust, comparable information about the needs of individuals in each area into a database shared by all programs, and another is to coordinate the delivery of services. The goal is to use diminishing public resources more efficiently.
As Mary Forbes of the Veterans Administration told forum attendees, “There’s lots of motivation but not a lot of coordination" with regard to housing homeless people. "The question," Forbes said, "is how to get the money where it’s most needed?”
In a telephone interview, Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) in Washington, D.C., said, “One of the real keys to a good homelessness system is targeting services properly. This is not very good around the country.” Often people with fewer or less severe problems receive more services or more expensive ones, she said.
“Misallocation of resources doesn’t work to end homelessness. An absolutely fundamental shift has to be made if the numbers are to go down,” said Roman. It’s critical to have “a common way of assessing people’s needs, and proper intervention for that level of need.”
Roman conceded that homelessness everywhere is “fundamentally a housing issue, and expensive housing is what’s driving it.” However, she said, the U.S. cities and counties that have reduced homeless numbers the most have developed central intake systems linked to a database shared by area programs. Full information on each person seeking help is promptly entered so that eviction can be prevented or housing secured, and fast. People who need case management and services receive them rapidly and at the level needed, no more and no less. The database reveals what services are missing, duplication of services is avoided, and resources are accurately deployed.
“Look at it from the perspective of a homeless person," said Roman. If someone needs a bed and there's no centralized system connecting shelters in the area, "you’ve got to call every night, find out the rules, when to arrive, what you can bring — it’s hard on people.” It’s unfair, too. “Clients who are attached to one place have access that other applicants don’t have,” who may be needier. Most important from a budget standpoint, staff in different shelters with a central intake system can manage bed space more efficiently and economically.
Roman is most concerned about wasting permanent housing that has support services installed on the premises. “Lots of people living across the country in permanent supportive housing don’t need it, and lots of disabled, chronically homeless people living on the streets can’t get into that housing because others who don’t need it to begin with are there.”
What also happens is that “after people have been in supportive housing a long time and get stabilized and don’t need it any more, it becomes a very expensive intervention,” with superfluous services. "It's a front-end problem," she said. (For instance, one agency may have access to information that a unit is available and move in a family with lesser needs, while another agency with needier clients isn’t aware of the vacancy.)
How well do programs in King County coordinate? Is there a central intake system with a centralized database for efficiency and effectiveness?
According to Roman, our area is “making progress,” but more needs to be done. And while some city and county leaders say that federal demands are steering local systems in the right direction, others see them as bureaucratic interference.
The database is one system that has needed steering. For several years, federal funding has been tied to developing a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that separate providers will use to see that clients receive the services they need. Without a shared database containing full, accurate information, said Roman, “you don’t know whether they’re getting served elsewhere.”
She said that database development “seems really lagging in the Seattle area. I thought it was odd, with Microsoft there," and with King County “ahead of the curve” in some other respects.
Al Poole, division director of homelessness intervention for Seattle human services, recalled that King County’s Web-based HMIS program, now called Safe Harbors, was started about 10 years ago at the initiative of Peter Steinbrueck, a Seattle city councilmember at the time. “There was no software to capture the data they needed back then," Poole said, "so the first four years were a disaster. They came out with clunky software, changed managers several times, and there was resistance from some of the nonprofits about submitting data.”
Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), said, “Given that this region is one of the most advanced technological nexuses on the face of the earth, we are way behind. Without empirical information, provider services are more a product of politics than they should be. One agency puts pressure on one group in the city, a million dollars are disgorged, and we have no clue whether that money was addressing the most pressing need.” He credited each agency with having good information, but added that the problem of occasionally duplicating services to the same individuals has not been overcome. Yet attitudes toward centralizing aren't always positive within some agencies. “There’s still resistance," Hobson said, "and it’s unfortunate.”
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