In July, Seattle will launch what it hopes will be an improved, coordinated system of connecting homeless people to housing. A particular challenge will be taking care of the largest segment of the homeless population: single adults.
If you had to pick a time to be homeless in Seattle, it seemed Dahkota Beckham had picked a good one.
At 18, she arrived with no place to stay just as local policymakers were designing a new way of connecting the homeless to housing.
The idea, percolating down from the national level, was a coordinated approach to make the search for a place to stay more fair and efficient.
It wouldn’t matter which homeless-services nonprofit you went to for help, the reasoning went. You would immediately be entered into a centralized database and assessed, then connected as quickly as possible to appropriate services.
You wouldn’t bounce from one organization to another, telling your story over and over again.
That was 2012. But it took more than two years for Beckham to get a call offering housing.
“I started laughing,” recalled Beckham, who by then had found a job that came with housing. Had she not, she said, “That would have been a really long two years.”
Now, King County officials are finalizing plans for a new “coordinated-entry system,” set to launch over the next few weeks, that will prioritize the most vulnerable, streamline cumbersome rules and offer easier access.
The reboot also attempts to end the often excruciating waits, which have occurred even as housing units and shelter beds lay vacant. But as county officials promise improvement, “Coordinated Entry for All” will add single adults to the mix — the homeless population’s largest group, by far.
“It’s either going to work out really great or really bad,” said Beckham, now 22 and a board member of All Home, which manages homelessness policy across King County.
Whatever its strengths, it’s clear the new system won’t bring immediate housing to many. A key piece is already in place, and it has left a family of eight — including two infants — sleeping in their car.
Sleeping on the bus
Around the time Beckham became homeless, officials rolled out a coordinated-entry system for homeless families. In 2013, they created a youth system. Two years later came a third system for veterans.
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One obstacle could not be ignored, and still can’t: Seattle has a major supply-and-demand problem. “The biggest thing we need to be doing is creating more housing,” said Mark Putnam, All Home executive director.
But that hasn’t been the only problem.
“The systems got bogged down,” observed Chris Meinhold, manager of a Solid Ground housing complex for domestic-violence survivors.
In late 2014, consultant Katharine Gale assessed the entry system for families, which then had more than 1,100 households on the waiting list. Nearly 70 percent had been there for more than six months. A third had been waiting for at least a year and a half.
During Natessa Hearn’s nine months on the Family Housing Connection waiting list, the mother of three sometimes found room with friends or a relative.
Other times, she and her children, all under 10, would ride the bus together at night, Hearn trying to guard their possessions while catching some sleep.
She finally landed a spot in transitional housing, but the experience left a sour taste. “For me,” she said of the family system, “it was not helpful.”
Charlotte Wheelock had a more positive experience. She landed a subsidized apartment in about five months.
But it took her a month just to get the assessment interview necessary to be added to the waiting list. Other families fare worse, she later learned after landing a job at Mary’s Place, a nonprofit that runs shelters and a day center.
“We have families with us for two months trying to call and get an appointment and they can’t,” Wheelock said.
Putnam said All Home brought in Gale to help answer the question: “How do we make this thing work?”
“It’s a very challenging thing,” the consultant said, noting that many regions are struggling to coordinate disparate homelessness programs.
What made King County’s families system unusual, according to Gale, was its sheer number of housing programs and the varying criteria for each.
One barred people with more than one eviction in the last three years, another prohibited people with more than two in the last five years, and so on.
There were so many different requirements, Gale and her team couldn’t analyze all of them, as they had elsewhere. That’s what coordinated-entry workers had been forced to sift through as they tried to match people with programs.
Meanwhile, some beds went vacant, frustrating nonprofit workers who said they had an easier time navigating the web of housing providers on their own.
Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, said its buildings usually have a 3 percent vacancy rate. But two of its buildings that take referrals through the family system have had much higher rates — at one point in 2014, 40 percent of one building sat empty.
Meanwhile, Mary’s Place, with one shelter in the system, had 25 to 30 empty beds per night, according to executive director Marty Hartman. Yet, she was required to turn away families who hadn’t been referred through the system.
The system eventually began allowing shelters to fill beds still vacant at the end of each day. That’s helped a lot, Hartman said.
All Home has also been working with housing providers to streamline their criteria.
People now are spending less time on waiting lists. Only about a third of households on the families system’s list have been there for six months or more.
Nights in the car
Persuading dozens of nonprofits to collaborate has been part of Houston’s success with its coordinated-entry system. And King County is learning from other regions as well, Putnam said. Los Angeles, for instance, has made impressive progress with a decentralized model.
In King County, it used to be that homeless families could access the entry system only by calling 211 and making an appointment to meet with assessment staff. But under the uber-system soon to launch, people will be able to walk into any of five hubs — in central and North Seattle, Kent, Federal Way and on the Eastside — as well as call 211.
Some nonprofits that work with the homeless will also be able to enter their clients directly into the system.
Yet getting assessed is only the first step. And though county officials have changed that process to prioritize the most vulnerable, Loyda Perez knows you can still be in urgent need of housing and receive none immediately.
The new assessment system was already in place when Perez and her family went through it about a month ago. It was on a day that her 18-year-old daughter had just gotten out of the hospital with her newborn, who was recovering from a fever and jaundice.
Perez, 40, also had a baby, then 7 months old. And she and her husband had three other children with them, ranging in age from 4 to 14.
The staffer doing the assessment took all that in, said Perez. Still, the family did not go to the top of the list. At least they had a car, Perez said she was told.
So that’s where the family has been mostly sleeping — or not sleeping, as the case may be. They can’t all fit, so Perez and her husband, who works as cook at an Eastside fast-food restaurant, sit in the front while the children lie flat in a bed made by pushing the back seats down.
The assessment did get them one thing: a referral to a Solid Ground “rapid rehousing” program, which offers short-term help with rent and finding an apartment. But the family had been referred before to the program through a previous assessment, and nothing has come of it so far. Most landlords refuse to take them because of a debt incurred from a past eviction, which happened after Perez’s husband lost his last job.
The Solid Ground staffer working with the family, Stacey Marron, expressed bafflement that the family’s circumstances did not put them higher on a priority list. “If that’s not an emergency, then what is?” she asked.
But Kira Zylstra, All Home assistant director, said it can be hard to tell who is in the most vulnerable position. “The challenge we’re faced with is that we have a lot of people who have a really great need.”
“This allows us to start somewhere.”