Housing the homeless: Should mental illness trump hard work?

Why Bill Hobson, a veteran provider of homeless services, advocates tying housing to vulnerability.
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Why Bill Hobson, a veteran provider of homeless services, advocates tying housing to vulnerability.

If you say something about homelessness where Bill Hobson can hear it, he’ll have something interesting to say back. The day after my story on homeless youth and young adults appeared in Crosscut a few weeks ago, this message from Hobson arrived in my mailbox:

Nice piece. It could have used a bit broader context. We too often focus on subsets of the homeless population without doing that – fitting them into the broader homeless context and policy responses to it. Big conversation I'd like to have with you someday.

So I dropped by Hobson’s office at DESC (Downtown Emergency Services Center), where he's been executive director since 1988.

Our conversation came at an emotional time. The previous weekend, two off-duty firefighters and a female executive at Amazon were arrested for their drunken assault on two homeless men sleeping at the firefighters’ memorial in Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park. It reminded me how vulnerable homeless people are, reviving memories of the pain I'd felt when a beloved family member suffering from schizophrenia slept in parks and under bridges for a whole year.

Hobson started our talk by reviewing King County’s January homeless counts, which found 3200 adults and 124 unaccompanied youth and young adults sleeping outside. If the estimate I read in E. Fuller Torrey’s book Out of the Shadows is correct – that one in five who are homeless suffer from serious mental illnesses – then King County has 665 sick, highly vulnerable adults and 13-25-year-olds sleeping in dangerous places.

“The last thing I want to do is trivialize the plight of anyone homeless, whether kid, vet, or single adult,” says Hobson. But available resources can’t cover everyone, so our policy across the board should be to prioritize the most vulnerable.

He concedes that it makes sense to customize services for subsets of people, because the needs of homeless youth differ from the needs of homeless families, which differ from the needs of chronically homeless single adults. Still, regardless of subset, the individuals most in danger should be first in line for shelter and housing. “All the shelters are full because transitional housing is full, because there’s not enough affordable housing” to accommodate all the people who are ready to move up from transitional to more permanent homes.

Prioritizing the most vulnerable means putting roofs over the heads of children and people living with mental illness first, says Hobson, while leaving many who may seem more deserving, such as homeless veterans, out in the cold. Also last would be homeless individuals who are managing to hold down jobs (about 25 percent are employed, nationwide).

A most-vulnerable-first policy would routinely place non-disabled homeless young adults in the bottom tier of applicants for transitional and permanent housing. King County’s Youth Housing Connection (YHC) has adopted this policy and gives priority to the most vulnerable 18-25-year-olds, identified as such by its intake assessment. Today’s housing shortage consigns the less vulnerable majority to such long waits that many will outgrow their YHC eligibility before ever getting a home.

Nearly all homeless veterans, too, belong at the end of the line for housing, says Hobson. The Vulnerability Assessment Tool used to determine eligibility for DESC housing shows that “as a group, even with the consequences of PTSD, vets are higher-functioning than the person living with paranoid schizophrenia who is preyed upon by every thug on the streets of downtown Seattle,” he says, recalling his classmate in grad school who left because of a disabling mental illness. “David was beaten to death in Kinnear Park in 2001. Every year here, someone is beaten to death."

According to Hobson, it would take $800-$900 million in rent subsidies or capital development dollars to house all of our homeless. But “we go home and sleep warm in our beds, and don’t muster the political will to get the money.” This despite having calculated the gigantic downstream costs of homelessness (high rates of unemployment, of incarceration, of hospitalization), and having taken on public projects of far greater magnitude – Century Link Field and the tunnel, for instance, he says.

Political will may be even harder to muster in the future. Today’s young people, like the students in the course Hobson teaches at Seattle U on the politics of homelessness, “have never known a time when homelessness wasn't a problem,” he says. They will grow up desensitized, wrongly believing homelessness to be “a part of the urban landscape that’s always there and always will be.”

Nonetheless Hobson, who plans to retire in June 2015 after more than a quarter-century leading DESC, feels pride in his town. “The good people of this city vote to increase their property taxes to create housing for poor people. I do not see this happening elsewhere.”

Hobson was raised to believe that “those who have, have a duty to assist those who don’t. Many of the people on the street don't look like innocents, but they are! Homeless youth, children of homeless parents, mentally ill people – they didn't create their situation. It was forced on them, and we have an obligation to help them.”

And there are unexpected upsides to helping. “If the guys sleeping under the bench of the firefighter memorial had a home,” Hobson says wryly, “the firefighters would not, presumably, be on administrative leave under threat of indictment by the county prosecutor.”


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