The Committee to End Homelessness, having failed to achieve its goal, revamps itself with a new name, a new plan and a quiet debate.
Two years ago, Real Change, the homeless-advocacy group and newspaper, helped lead a series of “Occupy” protests aimed at the public-private coalition that coordinates homelessness policy across King County. Some 50 to 100 marchers would descend upon every quarterly meeting of the Committee to End Homelessness, recalled Real Change founding director Tim Harris.
They railed against the coalition’s exclusive emphasis on developing long-term housing, at the expense of support for shelters and encampments.
Yet in September, Real Change presented the coalition’s executive director, Mark Putnam, with its annual “change agent” award. A lot has changed, and not just the coalition’s attitude under Putnam, which Harris sees as newly receptive to what homeless people and their advocates have to say, about issues such as the need for urgent shelter.
This month, the coalition has a new name — All Home — a new website and a new strategic plan, one that will please some past critics and moves in a direction under debate by professionals in the field.
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The revamp is, in part, a direct response to previous criticism. “A fractured movement is not going to get us to our ultimate goal,” Putnam said in an interview last week. “All Home” is meant to evoke a sense of community in fighting homelessness.
Behind the revamp is another reason as well: The Committee to End Homelessness, which began with a celebrated 10-year-plan to achieve its goal, saw its March 2015 deadline come and go with no end to homelessness in sight. In fact, the problem has gotten worse. January’s One Night Count turned up more than 10,000 homeless people — roughly 2,000 more than when the 10-year plan began.
“We came to some realizations,” Putnam said. “People will continue to experience homelessness despite everything we do. They will have family crises. They will have medical crises.” Rents will continue to soar, and more people will be unable to afford them.
So the coalition, which seeks to align public and private efforts, has largely stopped talking about ending homelessness — although its new plan, in line with a federal push, for instance, calls for ending veteran homelessness this year. Family and youth homelessness are supposed to end in 2020.
As if acknowledging that those are “aspirational” goals, as the coalition now calls its previous 10-year-target, All Home is talking most about its new mantra of making the problem “rare, brief and one-time.”
Its new plan outlines an array of strategies. It advocates lobbying for more state and federal funding, increasing the stock of subsidized housing and adding shelter capacity while, at the same time, diverting people from such facilities through an intake system that is more flexible. Putnam mentioned an email he had just received from someone trying to help a couple who had come here from North Carolina for a job and become stranded when that didn’t work out. Putnam referred them to a program he thought could pay for bus tickets back home.
To find out what people really need and give it to them, the county will have to improve its 3-year-old intake system for homeless families, reached by calling 211. A report late last year found the “coordinated entry system” lacks transparency, fails to meaningfully assess families, puts them through a gauntlet of screenings and paperwork and leaves some families without housing.
“We’ve made some changes and are in the process of making further changes,” Putnam said.
Another cornerstone of the plan involves stepping up “rapid rehousing,” which has a lot in common with the acclaimed “housing first” philosophy. Essentially, housing first holds that people need immediate, unconditional access to permanent housing before they can effectively work on other needs, such as finding a job or kicking an addiction.
Downtown Emergency Service Center’s (DESC) 1811 Eastlake, which takes in chronic inebriates without requiring them to get sober, is one of the most famous examples of the housing-first philosophy. DESC opened the facility in 2005 and charges residents 30 percent of their income to live there.
Rapid rehousing, in contrast, doesn’t involve building special projects for the homeless. Nor does it entail ongoing subsidies. Instead, it sends people into the private housing market with short-term assistance, usually move-in costs and rent for the first month or several months.
“The thinking is that these folks just need a little bit of stability and a little bit of a hand up,” says Bill Hobson, who retired this summer as DESC’s executive director.
Early studies have shown success in an array of cities around the country, prompting the federal government to channel funding toward rapid-rehousing efforts.
“We jumped on that,” Putnam said. Not only was rapid rehousing where the money was, it was cheaper.
He said rapid-rehousing subsides add up to about $6,000 a year per client (others using this model say the assistance can amount to far less), whereas permanently subsidized housing costs $15,000 to $20,000.
“My problem is,” countered Hobson, “it’s not expanding the stock of affordable housing.” Instead, particularly in Seattle, it involves relying on a “a superheated housing market” and the willingness of landlords to take low-income, subsidized tenants.
Witness Dana Disharoon, a Seattle bartender and mother of three who searched for six months for a place to use her federal Section 8 voucher. She faced stiff competition among tenants and flat-out rejections from landlords, despite its being against the law to discriminate against those with Section 8 vouchers.
With rapid rehousing, “landlords see that rental assistance is going to go away,” said Daniel Malone, who succeeded Hobson as DESC executive director and whose organization has been experimenting with the new model.
And when subsidies do go away, tenants may be unable to afford the Seattle area’s sky-high rents on their own. “We have found that’s been tougher than expected,” said Stacey Marron, a housing advocate at the nonprofit Solid Ground.
Putnam acknowledged that rapid rehousing presents challenges. Speaking in particular about the difficulty of finding willing landlords, he said: “We’re struggling with it. All our managers are talking about it.”
Still, he pointed out that DESC has had success with its rapid-rehousing efforts. The organization has, so far, placed 128 people in housing over the past two years, Malone confirmed. It now is trying to find housing for 156 more.
In Malone’s view, the jury is still out on rapid rehousing.
“Some say it’s getting by on the cheap,” that it’s sending people out into the market “with a hope and a prayer,” he observed.
He has his own concerns about relying too much on that model. Yet, he recognizes that the alternative, building permanently subsidized housing, is time-consuming and expensive.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, according to Putnam. The need for permanently subsidized housing is great, but not everybody needs it Putnam maintained. And if short-term subsides can get someone housed for less, “we save money overall that can be used to house all the people in line behind that person.”
All Home’s new plan is riding on it.