What is Seattle and King County really getting for $45 million a year in spending to end homelessness?

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ONCE again, Seattle and King County are in a homeless crisis.

Tents dot Interstate 5 interchanges and seemingly any open plot of land. People curl into doorways in the shadow of rising South Lake Union office towers. School buses make routine stops at tent camps.

We are now nine years and seven months into the region’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Seattle and King County. Those two local governments spend $45 million a year on homeless services, and local philanthropy is extraordinary.

Yet, the number of unsheltered people continues to rise. The annual One Night Count in January found 3,123 people without shelter, a 13 percent increase from the year before. Data collected by King County providers show people are staying longer in shelters and, most disturbingly, are increasingly falling back into homelessness even after getting help.

We’re throwing money — lots of it — at this serious problem, yet it keeps getting worse. Why?

In a recent visit to Seattle, the head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness described the region as having a “program-centered approach” to addressing homelessness. That is a subtle — but stinging — critique, suggesting the city and county homeless spending is better at funding agencies than tailoring services to individuals.

That critique was echoed in a recent evaluation of one program, the Family Housing Connection, intended to be a single entry point for homeless families.

But the six participating providers had such disparate eligibility criteria — 26 different criteria related to eviction history, 77 different criteria for criminal history — that this supposedly seamless entry point was instead a bureaucratic maze. The result: More than 120homeless families didn’t even qualify.

Seattle and King County — and generous nonprofit funders such as the United Way — need to take a new approach. Both municipalities finally have begun inserting performance-based requirements into new contracts, requiring contractors to hit targets. The King County executive, for example, wants to add a requirement that no more than 7 percent return to homelessness within two years.

A modest goal, but it represents an overdue injection of accountability.

Yet both the Metropolitan King County Council and the Seattle City Council, in recent budget-writing, bent to lobbying from human-services providers and watered down these efforts.

County Executive Dow Constantine’s budget proposed competitive bidding for county-funded services, but the council delayed that effort by a year. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray also pushed for competitive bidding. But the council, at the last minute, appropriated more than $1 million for specific programs, making competitive bidding more difficult.

“We need a fair regional system, not one based on the strength of lobbying,” said Adrienne Quinn, the King County Community and Human Services director.

The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness has had some successes: On an average day in King County, more than 5.5 households exit homelessness to permanent housing.

But a lack of clarity about what is really working, and what is not, means that spending $45 million a year may make us feel good, feel compassionate, but it may not be spent in ways that make the biggest difference.

Information in this article, originally published Nov. 29, 2014, was corrected Dec. 4, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the type of programs for which competitive bidding was delayed by a year. The delay affected county-funded human services, but not homeless programs. Also, the editorial misstated the number of people who exit homelessness. On an average day in King County, 5.5 households exit to permanent housing, not 55 people.