The way homeless families in the Puget Sound area are helped is changing, with a new emphasis on moving them more quickly into places of their own.
In the late 1990s, as out-of-work Ohio residents flocked to Columbus in search of jobs, many found themselves in a new predicament: They were homeless.
The support system meant to help them, much like the one now in King County, was a network of agencies, each with different rules — a labyrinth with no clear way in and no easy way out.
Families making repeated calls in search of help overwhelmed the system. And when putting them up in hotels became too costly, shelters started turning families away.
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In response, officials in Columbus created a more streamlined system — “one front door,” they called it — a one-stop center that parents and children in need could enter day or night.
The Columbus approach became a national model for helping families escape homelessness, and key parts of it are being incorporated in what ultimately could be a top-to-bottom overhaul of how homeless families in three Puget Sound counties are helped.
The changes are being pushed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have all signed on to the core goals: do more to prevent family homelessness, simplify how they get help at the front end and move them more quickly into places of their own.
The counties are working out details of their separate plans now and will share $60 million in foundation money they must leverage over the next six years on programs to carry them out.
But even as they move forward, those who work with the homeless at some agencies in King County worry they will come up short in serving families, in part because of what the foundation isn’t doing: paying for more housing.
Everyone agrees that a shortage of affordable housing makes family homelessness the persistent problem it is. And without some explicit provision for creating more of it, they worry that the numbers of families who can’t get into housing will only grow.
Gates Foundation officials are the first to agree that affordable housing is crucial to the success of the counties’ plans, but say building it is ultimately the responsibility of the government.
“We didn’t think the limited resources we had — $60 million — has as its best use investments in bricks and mortar,” said David Wertheimer, the foundation’s deputy director.
At the county level, those trying to make it all work are hoping that key pieces of the overhaul will reduce the need for more housing. They are also hoping for relief from the federal government.
Local funding alone won’t do it, said Bill Block, who heads the Committee to End Homelessness in King County.
“There’s an ongoing housing crisis across the county that affects hundreds of thousands of families who aren’t even homeless,” he said. “Government at both the local and federal levels needs to address the needs of these communities … so that a single mom making minimum wage can afford housing.”
The foundation looked at successful models for helping homeless families across the country and studied the results of its own Sound Families Initiative to develop key elements for the three counties to consider in rebuilding their rigid support systems.
The foundation said it will see what works in all three counties and eventually help fund similar programs statewide.
It urged the counties to put greater emphasis on preventing family homelessness and to make it easier for families who do become homeless to quickly get the right help, including job training.
It also wants the counties to fast-track most families into permanent housing, focusing on their underlying problems once they are settled. Under the current system, families leaving shelters typically make a two-year stop in what’s called transitional housing, where they work with caseworkers to become “house-ready” for places of their own.
The foundation would like to see that structure change, along with the funding restrictions that often drive it.
“One of the philosophical shifts this is trying to support is that housing is first,” said the foundation’s Wertheimer.
“Yes we may have a family still struggling with employment, domestic violence, mental health, substance abuse, but that family is housing-ready because housing is first.”
Each county will leverage its share of the $60 million to draw in additional funds that will cover the costs of operating their new systems, including staffing for new programs and helping families with rent, transportation costs and child care, among other expenses.
This new focus on families comes as the Committee to End Homelessness in King County reaches the halfway mark in carrying out its 10-year plan.
The committee — a consortium of business leaders, homeless people, their funders, advocates and service providers — is folding into its broader agenda on homelessness the plan for families that King County is developing in response to the foundation’s challenge.
A key priority for the committee is creating housing for people leaving homelessness, and five years ago it set a goal for 9,500 units over 10 years. More than 3,300 units have been created to date, with another 900 in the pipeline. At the same time, Block said, housing for low-income people in general is also being developed.
Sometimes moving people out of homelessness isn’t about new buildings but rather helping remove the barriers that have closed off housing to them in the past.
This is happening through a program called the Landlord Liaison Project, which guarantees landlords that rent will be paid and damage covered if they agree to rent to homeless people who may have poor credit histories or criminal convictions.
Some 271 individuals have signed leases through the YWCA-operated program since it was started a year ago.
Changes under way
Using the foundation’s suggestions as a guide, King County is finalizing its own blueprint for reducing the number of homeless families.
Included in its plan are prevention strategies — ways to intervene early, perhaps helping a family move from an apartment they can no longer afford into one with rent that’s more doable.
Also in the county’s plans are provisions to quickly rehouse families that do become homeless, offering them assistance with rent.
Both of these approaches are already under way in some form across King County, paid for over the next three years with $6.6 million in federal stimulus money.
But as its first priority, King County will establish a coordinated entry system, essentially a new front door for families who become homeless.
The idea has been talked about here for years. Details are still being worked out, but it could be in place by early next year.
Families calling the existing 211 information help line would be screened, rather than offered a list of places to call that may result in a dead end. Initially, service hours won’t be extended beyond the current 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., although there might be opportunities for families in emergencies to be connected with an existing 24-hour crisis line.
After that initial screening, families would be quickly referred to a single agency for a deeper assessment of their needs and what it would take to quickly house them. Many would end up on a placement list, and moved into a shelter if that’s what they need and if space is available.
A single agency will be selected to run the program and will be expected to staff centers around the county.
Those who work with the homeless say this should be a welcome change for stressed families and could also draw more of them out of the shadows of homelessness.
In Snohomish County, for example, where a limited version of a single-entry system has been up and running for four years, officials say establishing a waiting list of those needing shelter and housing has allowed them to get a clearer picture of who’s homeless.
But at the same time, a shortage of affordable housing has made it tough to quickly move people off that list.
Where will they go?
Those and other concerns are being raised in King County.
As the plan is discussed in committee meetings and public forums, some worry that it doesn’t recognize the needs of some families, including those with cultural and language barriers who may have trouble getting appropriately assessed.
Others say it doesn’t speak to some long-standing problems, including the difficulty agencies often have reaching families without reliable phone numbers once their names finally reach the top of a placement list.
But by far the biggest concern is how and where agencies will house the families likely to find their way into a simplified system.
Manuela Ginnett, of the Multi-Service Center in Federal Way, said those families are out there. “In 2009, we helped put 90 families in shelter,” she said. “There were another 1,400 calls that we turned away.”
For Sue Sherbrooke, chief executive officer of YWCA in Seattle, “the concern is that as we roll this out and get better coordination, we’ll find a long and heart-wrenching wait list.”
“No amount of coordination will increase the number of apartments or beds available,” Sherbrooke said.
Debbi Knowles, a King County program manager who is developing the county’s plan, acknowledges that the lack of affordable housing presents a challenge to the plan’s success.
With budget cuts at all levels of government, and homelessness among families on the rise, “it’s tough to be trying to implement a new system,” she said. But she and others are hopeful that long waiting lists for housing will shrink as prevention efforts lead fewer families into homelessness, and that those who do become homeless are moved more quickly into their own places.
As the need for homeless housing decreases, she said, there could be opportunities to convert those units into permanent housing — a conversation the county would have to have with the service providers who operate such programs.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org