Getting cooperation on a single path to fight homelessness in the region will be difficult but essential to tackling the crisis.

Share story

Fighting homelessness has long been a mission driven by compassion, but now data is rising to the fore. It’s going to be difficult to get a successful mix of the two, but it is possible and necessary.

Last week, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray released two reports that suggest ways the city and surrounding area can do a better job of reducing homelessness, and both reports emphasize relying on data to judge the effectiveness of programs and to make an unwieldy system of responses more manageable. That’s all good.

But actually carrying that out is going to be difficult and painful.

One of the points made last week is that homelessness is being fought by more than 300 programs in this area, run by more than 100 organizations. It’s great that there is so much concern and effort to help people who are homeless or on the verge of it, but having so many different players who have different rules and methods makes coordination difficult.


What you need to know about Seattle’s homeless crisis

Sometimes reports are helpful because they tell you something new, and sometimes they are useful because they reinforce what you already knew, and maybe make it easier to take action.

There are programs in King County already doing many of the things that have had the most evidence-based success. Think of 1811 Eastlake, a project built and run by Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Services Center, that’s based on the housing-first philosophy. Most programs screen out people for a variety of reasons, including alcohol use. At 1811, the idea has been to just get people into housing, then work to address the problems they have, rather than demanding that they be sober to get a place. It’s worked well for years.

There are many other examples of programs that are effective in reducing homelessness. But they tend to work as islands, rather than as an integrated system working toward a common goal in a way that increases overall success.

For the past several years, King County has been trying to coordinate just the entry of people into housing, and that has been a challenge. Before being revised this year, the effort to streamline access to housing actually resulted in backlogs of people trying to get a roof over their heads. The centralized process became a choke point where people who needed housing got stuck waiting for their cases to be sorted out.

Trying to get 100 organizations on the same path, especially when they have different practices and philosophies, will be harder still, but it makes sense to figure out what works best and most efficiently and to do more of that.

Someone is going to have to choose a path from among many, and that will mean that some well-intentioned people and organizations will be asked to change or risk the government support they get.

The mayor has a plan. Of course, there have been plans before, but maybe we know enough now, especially about what doesn’t work, and maybe there is enough of a sense of urgency that this moment will be different.

Remember the fight for marriage equality? People pushed and pushed thinking their efforts might pay off sometime in the future, then something gave, and the momentum built until what seemed unlikely, if not impossible, happened.

You have to keep pushing, because you never know when that point is just in front of you.

Seattle was a leader in the movement to raise minimum wages, and the success here helped other places take their own steps toward improving incomes for workers at the low end. That probably has helped more than a few people avoid homelessness.

That wage effort required consultation, compromise, diplomacy and an application of force.

Homelessness is going to require that and more. It’s a regional issue and an emotional one involving persuading a lot of people and institutions dedicated to doing good that they can do better together.

They’re going to need not just data, but a hearing that respects their views, and then maybe unity of purpose will follow.

A philosophy of housing-first and close coordination worked well in Houston, and it ought to work here, too.