Bill Block is stepping down after seven years leading the King County Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The Seattle Times sat down with Block for an interview about what the region has accomplished and whether the goal can be reached.
Q: How has homelessness changed since you started in 2005?
A: The face of homelessness used to be a single adult. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t family homelessness. We had a safety net. We now have people who have grown up seeing widespread homelessness and think it is almost normal. We should not in our society be seeing homelessness as normal.
Q: The idea that we could end homelessness in 10 years now seems naive, given the economy and high unemployment. What do you tell people?
A: We went to our governing board in 2011 and asked if we should reset the timelines. They said, rather than that, tell us what you expect to accomplish by 2015.
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We said we want to hold to our goals to build 9,500 new units of housing in the county. We’ve funded over 5,000. We want to hold to our goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015 and our goal of ending veterans’ homelessness by 2015. We were the first jurisdiction in the nation to have a coordinated plan between the federal government, the state and the county to end veterans’ homelessness. The last county veterans levy passed with 69 percent support.
We want to transform the system so it’s more effective helping families and youth.
We are starting some exciting work on youth and young adults. They’re very hard to count. They avoid shelters. They hide in squats. A disproportionate number are LGBT. We’re seeing kids who are dealing with mental-health issues, with chemical-dependency issues. And we’re seeing kids who are homeless because their families can’t afford them anymore. Engaging and helping them will prevent them from becoming homeless adults.
Another area that gets overlooked is immigrant and refugee homelessness. Their biggest barrier to housing and jobs is English. They used to get 24 months of support to get on their feet. In this state now, the support stops after eight months. It’s very hard to learn English in eight months.
A lot depends on what happens to the social safety net and the economy. We’ve cut Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. We’ve cut the cash grant for general assistance.
Q: You’ve gained a reputation nationally as an effective and innovative leader, but some of the innovations have been controversial. Talk about the housing built for alcoholics at 1811 Eastlake.
A: We opened that building for late-stage alcoholics in 2006. Before that, we told someone with severe disabilities, “You have to abide by a whole series of rules and change your behavior,” and they wouldn’t succeed in housing.
We created “low-barrier” housing where whether you’re drinking isn’t an issue. People were able to sustain housing and voluntarily accept help to address their disabilities.
In 2009, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a University of Washington study on 1811 Eastlake. It showed that people in those 75 units dropped their use of emergency medical services $4 million in the first year alone. And that for a facility derided as “bunks for drunks.” It really changed the national landscape in terms of programs.
Q: What are some of the other successes?
A: We have teams that address the high utilizers of jails and hospitals. Our client-care coordination targets housing to them. Comparing six months before housing to six months with housing, jail days dropped 65 percent, sobering-center days dropped 93 percent and psychiatric-hospital days dropped 85 percent. One thing we’ve shown conclusively is that stable housing is essential to recovery of all types and at all levels.
Q: You recently implemented a coordinated entry system for homeless families looking for help. But a homeless family with two kids called me to say they’d called 2-1-1 (for information and referrals) and were told there’s a three-week waiting list just to get an intake appointment.
A: There is a three-week wait. There’s not nearly the resources we’d like. But instead of going from program to program, searching for any open spot, they can call one number and once they’re on the waiting list, they’ll get the first appropriate space available. That’s huge.
Q: Talk about the new initiative known as Rapid Rehousing that’s designed to get families into permanent housing more quickly. How is it working?
A: It’s really a change in attitude. We used to view homeless families as “broken.” Emergency housing was to stabilize them, and transitional housing was to “fix” them, and then they were ready for government housing. The assumption was that took a long time. Rapid Rehousing says, “We believe you’re strong. We believe you’re creative. Let us know what you need to be housed.”
Q: Any stories about how it’s working?
A: We’re just starting, but a director of a program on the Eastside had a check come across her desk for $71 (from the agency) made out to the state Liquor Control Board. It turns out that they had a family whose mom had her training as a bartender, had passed the test, had a job waiting and just needed $71 to get her license. She didn’t need 18 months in a program. That’s what you’re looking for, whether it’s a fixed car or three months’ rent. What does that family need?
Q: You noted that you’re leaving seven years into the Ten-Year Plan. What are the challenges for your successor?
A: The challenges are going to be the shrinking resources and the continuing shredding of the social safety net. The federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development) budget in constant dollars is one-half of what it was in 1978.
Q: What’s next for Bill Block? You left a successful law practice to take this job.
A: I will stay in social justice. I tell people it’s like being bitten by a vampire. You’re never the same afterward.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @lthompsontimes.