New responses to homelessness from elsewhere in the country underscore the need for Seattle to welcome fresh ideas.
SEATTLE’S state of emergency for homelessness should not be just about spending more. The city and region — the homeless crisis is regional — need fresh ideas that challenge ourcalcified response to homelessness.
San Francisco has an even worse homeless problem than Seattle, but that city’s mayor managed to open a “low-barrier” shelter, called the Navigation Center, with promising results.
A low-barrier shelter is what it sounds like: few rules for entry, open 24 hours a day, couples and pets stay together, lengths of stay are short as case managers find residents permanent housing or offer travel assistance to send homeless people to live elsewhere with friends or family.
That approach has worked for San Francisco’s Navigation Center. Of the 501 people it has served, 150 moved to housing and 187 others took advantage of travel money. The average stay is three months.
In contrast, Seattle and King County’s homeless system of 3,800 shelter beds relies on, with a few exceptions, more traditional shelters — open for set hours, often separating genders and people from their pets. People on average stay for five months.
And travel assistance is limited because that option is viewed through the lens of privilege — seen as pushing the problem on, not as giving a homeless person what he or she needs.
Lessons from Houston are mixed. With the help of a more affordable housing market than in Seattle, it relied on a “coordinated entry” system to open doors to permanent housing. King County is already moving toward a coordinated response, which triages the most vulnerable homeless people for shelter. But it has faced significant pushback from homeless-services providers, who question how well it works.
No single idea will solve homelessness. But looking elsewhere is smart because Seattle’s homeless response — and the extraordinary $49 million a year spent on it — is not working. Leaders from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness found King County’s system to be more focused on supporting agencies than moving people out of homelessness.
And a consultant hired by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray blasted the increasing reliance on sanctioned tent camps, which resemble developing countries more than a wealthy, innovative city.
Murray has a clear-eyed view of the need to shake up our homeless response. So do many in the well-intended, hardworking nonprofit sector focused on homelessness.
But there is an unmistakable air of defensiveness among homeless advocates to these potential solutions from elsewhere and a demand for more money to be thrown at the same programs, which aren’t exactly working.
Time to open up and let in some fresh ideas.