Tony Rodriguez: Hi. We’re in Seattle, Washington. We’re at the top of the Space Needle, and we’re here to talk with Mark Putman, who’s doing a lot of work with the homeless here, and we, they, he’s been doing it a while. He’s been little further along than we are down in San Diego, and we want to know what he’s doing.
Tony Rodriguez: I’m Tony.
Mark Putnam: How you doing?
Tony Rodriguez: Currently homeless down in San Diego and Dennis and I are doing this video. We’ve been looking forward to talking with you. We know you’ve made a lot of progress here in Seattle, and we just want to know exactly what you do, what you do here and what kind of things have you accomplished, what were some of the pitfalls, things you had to overcome, to have your new _______ here.
Mark Putnam: Well, I’m Mark Putnam, the Director at All Home. We are Seattle-King County’s Continuum of Care.
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, okay.
Mark Putnam: And the 10-year plan, kind of planning body that’s no longer a 10-year plan, but they’ve been merged together. We did that a few years ago. We really are a coalition of the local government, the nonprofits, people experiencing homelessness, business and faith community. We have a 15-member, 16-member board that is representative of those different groups and some subcommittees that work on things like our Homeless Management Information System, our coordinated entry. So that’s kind of how we’re structured. We’re an eight-person team that does all of our community engagement with people who are experiencing homelessness. We have a what we call a consumer advisory council. We also do a lot of, like, training and capacity building and things like that.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. Must be hard to get all those people together and have them agree on one set direction, you know.
Mark Putnam: Yeah, it’s very difficult.
Mark Putnam: It’s very difficult. It’s challenging. We’ve made some good progress and when I kind of step back and kind of go, you know, kind of look above, like, kind of try to think back to where we were a few years ago, and you can see the progress. In the day-to-day it can feel like, “Oh,” you know, it’s a challenge. This is hard work, and people’s lives are at stake, so it’s really, like, emotionally challenging for the people working on this and obviously for people who are experiencing homelessness who often have no idea that we’re even talking about this or working on these things.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. Yes, I agree [ph?] that for sure there’s a lot of people working on the issue. Being on the street before this I had, “Nobody cares. There’s nothing going on. Nothing’s changing.” But really, behind the scenes there’s a lot, a lot going on. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started and what it was like when you first started?
Mark Putnam: Sure. Yeah. So I started in this position a few years ago, three years ago. But our community has really been struggling with this issue for a long time. So in 2005, we, like most communities, most cities around the country, we put together a 10-year plan to end homelessness. We pulled together business and nonprofits and local government leaders. As I came in we were probably in year 9, just wrapping up that 10-year period, and I think there’s a lot of disillusionment around sort of, you know, well, we’d set this huge goal. We hadn’t got there. But there were some huge successes in that time, so during those 10 years our estimates, and we didn’t have the best data systems in the early years, and that’s one of the things where we made progress, we have better now. Forty thousand people who had been homeless during those 10 years moved to housing.
Tony Rodriguez: Wow, no kidding.
Mark Putnam: So that’s a huge, huge success.
Tony Rodriguez: Forty thousand.
Mark Putnam: We created new housing units through rental assistance or development of new buildings and units. I think 6500 households were able to kind of have new spots for them to be.
Tony Rodriguez: I see. So you really–
Mark Putnam: But our goal was 9500, so we didn’t quite reach it.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. So you really didn’t have to build more, you just went out and found–
Mark Putnam: We– no, we did. We built a ton more.
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, okay.
Mark Putnam: Yeah. So we built a lot of permanent supportive housing.
Tony Rodriguez: I see.
Mark Putnam: Transitional housing was really popular during that period. We built a lot of it in Seattle-King County, and we added shelter capacity during that period too, so we did all three of those things, and then really started to add more and more rental assistance as well, rapid rehousing and other things to make, to get more people access to housing.
Tony Rodriguez: Where’d you find the money to do this?
Mark Putnam: Our community is lucky when I think about sort of, and I talked to some of my peers in other communities around the country, we do have a strong philanthropic sector. The Gates Foundation is here.
Tony Rodriguez: Mm-hm. Oh, yeah.
Mark Putnam: Our United Way is the largest in the country as far as the amount of money that they raise and they do spend money on homelessness, about, I think, right now it’s around eight or nine million a year. We also have other foundations that are working on different subpopulations. The city itself has put in funding in out of their general fund. The city and the county have both passed some different levees around affordable housing, around mental health, around veterans. Those things have been pieced together. We also have a statewide document recording fee, so any kind of mortgage transaction generates resources for homelessness across the state.
Tony Rodriguez: You developed a plan and we’re doing that in San Diego as well, right now. We’re just in the beginning stages, so you’re little further along than we are. What can you say about that, you know, offer suggestions to us maybe or…
Mark Putnam: Sure, yeah. So in 2015, middle of 2015, we released our strategic plan, a new strategic plan. Kind of the successor to our 10-year plan. We reset around the, some of the HUD national goals around making homelessness rare, which means the exits, Department of Housing, making homelessness brief, which means the length of time from entry to shelter to exit to permanent housing, and then the amount of people that return to homelessness. We call it, you know, we want homelessness to just be one time, so how many people once they’re in housing do they return to homelessness? So we set as our kind of mantra, like, we want homelessness to be rare, brief and one time in King County and we want to reduce and really eliminate racial disparities, because people who are Native American in Seattle-King County are seven times as likely as whites to be homeless and African-Americans are five times as likely as whites, so these are, those are important. If we don’t address those issues, then we can’t.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, I see.
Mark Putnam: So– but during that planning process, and we had like 500 community stakeholders. Part of that process, more than a hundred people who had experienced homelessness were a part of the process. We developed a really good plan but we weren’t able to because we didn’t really have the data capacity and analysis capacity to put specific numbers of units of housing or rental assistance and really get the sort of third-party advice around how we should be spending our funding. So we hired Focus Strategies. Focus Strategies worked with us for about a year actually. We released that report last fall in 2016.
Tony Rodriguez: I see. Did it change any of your perception or the original plan when you got information from them?
Mark Putnam: Yeah, it did. I mean, I think we, what it changed, was that they gave us a lot of hope that with the resources that we have, existing resources that we have, that we can house a lot more people, and that was a basic question we asked them. “With the pot of money we have, assuming we can’t go get more somewhere, can we house more people and make sure that they’re in safe, stable housing and all those things?” and don’t cut around the edges there. But, like, “Is there a way for us to do this better?” and they came back and said, “Yeah.” I mean, I think they said that we, basically the performance of a lot of our programs in our community were not at sort of national standards as far as moving to permanent housing out of shelter or those kinds of things, and so they also said, “Hey, you guys got to get out of your own way.” The city, the county, All Home, United Way, the Gates Foundation. “You all got these different ideas about how to do this. You got to get that more aligned,” and that, you know, I think for the providers who heard that their performance wasn’t good, and the funders, the local government who heard that they maybe weren’t as connected as they should be. Somewhat kind of hard to hear the recommendations, but that’s why we wanted this third party to look at it and say, “Hey, our view, from working in these other communities and in looking at your data, tells us that there’s some things you could be doing differently,” and it wasn’t– I think that was really helpful. I don’t think it was, you know, if I had said those things as somebody that’s here on the inside or if just the mayor had said it or just a provider had said it. We needed somebody externally. In addition to Focus Strategies and their report, the city of Seattle at the same time, kind of in a connected way, hired a consultant to just look at how the city itself, not the county, but just the city, how they were spending their funds, and we released those reports on the same day and kind of had little press conference and got a lot of attention and people are really tracking sort of, “Okay. Now, are you implementing those recommendations? Are you making progress?” You know, the elected officials are making sure that we’re making progress and they’re accountable for that, and then the business community too is holding the elected officials and me and others accountable saying, “Are you taking the steps to implement those recommendations?” So I think it’s been really good. It’s been challenging, you know, because it’s increased the profile of all of these systems’ change efforts. It’s not like we’re just sitting in our cubicles kind of doing this work, but it’s now, like, on the front page of the newspaper. Like, “Is the city doing what the consultant said? Is the county? Is All Home?” so…
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. I think the perception is is you are making great progress. But wasn’t there a time when there was a state emergency or there was a _______ or something?
Mark Putnam: Yeah.
Tony Rodriguez: Did you have to get more funds to help you?
Mark Putnam: Shortly after the release of our strategic plan in late 2015, the mayor of Seattle, Mayor Murray, and the County Executive for King County, Dow Constantine, declared jointly a state of emergency around homelessness and said, “We will–“ well, at the time they had made some announcements around additional funding and some small, smaller amounts, in the grand scheme of things. But some changes that they were making and some new shelter beds and things that they were opening that were important, but they also said, “Really, in order for us to make progress in this crisis that is homelessness–” and, you know, unfortunately in King County about 90 people per year the last few years, have died while homeless in King County. So it’s a real crisis. They said, you know, “Hey, this is a manmade crisis. We’ll usually declare a state of emergency or ask for the governor or the federal government’s support when there’s a natural crisis, a mudslide or a whatever, but in this case we have a manmade emergency that we can fix, but we also need the state and federal government to help and to step up.” But I think they have not found that the federal government has done anything new and we are less optimistic now with the new administration. With the state they have done some– they, last year’s legislative session, they only added a very small amount for homelessness. This year we still have hope, the legislative session is continuing, that they will add some more resources. But we’re, you know, we’re feeling very much in this community that it’s up to us. We’re the change that we’re waiting for or whatever that slogan is, and so we’re making the changes here to– with the existing resources we have– to improve programs and we’re also looking to add more resources because we don’t think we have enough resources to address the crisis. You know, we have more than 10,000 people on a given day experiencing homelessness either in shelter or unsheltered.
Tony Rodriguez: You mentioned needing more resources. What were the resources toward?
Mark Putnam: What we think we need more of are, fit into, a few different buckets. One is we know we need more housing. So we have a lot of efforts underway to build more housing, but we need it quicker than the four years it takes to develop a project and we don’t have huge chunks of money to build a ton of housing. So it’s both, it would be for both building housing, as well as for rental, more rental assistance, to pay for rent in the private market. The other things it will pay for, and again, we have a proposal for a sales tax, right. At this point, nothing is confirmed. It’s not even confirmed yet that it’s going to be for sure on the ballot, but that’s, that’s the direction things are moving in right now. So building housing, rental assistance. Also for shelter, but shelter, really transforming existing shelters into places where people can store their belongings, where partners can come with them and pets, and–
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, we had some issues.
Mark Putnam: Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure.
Tony Rodriguez: Like they have a girlfriend and a dog.
Mark Putnam: Yeah.
Tony Rodriguez: And stuff.
Mark Putnam: Yeah. So does everybody, right?
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.
Mark Putnam: I mean, you know, we have friends and– yeah. We have, you know.
Tony Rodriguez: And on the street it’s difficult because you can’t– if I have a doctor’s appointment I have to take all my things with me. You know, I mean, it’s ridicu–
Mark Putnam: Yeah. So that’s the problem we’re trying to solve is creating a place where we don’t want people to move into shelter, and that’s not, that shouldn’t be the end, but we do need it to be a place where people will go so that we can then work on moving them out of shelter and into housing.
Tony Rodriguez: You mentioned system changes. What do you mean by that exactly?
Mark Putnam: We are really transforming basically the way that a person who’s experiencing homelessness gets access to housing. Housing is the solution to homelessness.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, it is.
Mark Putnam: We’ve created too many steps. There’s just too many steps to get there and too much confusion about how to get there, and before I even go into sort of how we’re making it simpler, I have to say, we continue to have the challenge that we don’t have enough housing for everybody that needs it, so that’s why so many of these steps have been created, to sort of screen people out, to direct them that way. “Oh, you only need that much, or this much,” and it’s because, you know, we’re operating, I think, from a place of scarcity. In our community, housing is just very, very expensive. I know it is in San Diego too, but it’s grown really, really fast here, because of we’ve had a really strong tech economy that’s led to those workers being able to afford any kind of housing and it’s really changed our community in the last few years. Pretty significantly. The changes that we’re aiming to make are for a person who’s experiencing homelessness to have some ability to get off the street very quickly, and so we’re still in the midst of this transformation. We are not there. Because the way it’s really been in the past is someone needs to, you know, line up basically, get on a queue or list for housing, whether it’s Section 8 or whether it’s homeless housing. What we are implementing is this approach called diversion. At any opportunity, we want to keep you out of our shelters and out of our homeless services and housing and instead offer you and ask you the question, “What would it take to end your homelessness?” and if the answer is, “I just need some help moving into a building,” “I need help with the first and last month’s rent,” and then I just, I’ll stabilize. If you have family in another community and you’re just like, “I’m out here in Seattle but I actually want to get back to Vancouver,” or San Francisco or somewhere like that, then we’re working with you to say, “Okay. So do you know anyone that lives there? Is there someone we can talk to to confirm that you can actually stay there if you went back?” and in some cases we’re paying for transportation. There are some people though, and in our community and I think in places in California too, we see higher numbers of them, of people who are chronically homeless. Who have been homeless a long period of time, they have a disability, and it’s 20 to 30 percent of the population is what we’re seeing. We thought it was lower but we’re starting to see some numbers that indicate it’s higher. So those folks need permanent supportive housing. They may be able to get by with some rental assistance, and so at that point if we’re, you know, we’re seeing that that’s the issue and we’re not able to divert, then we assess people, find out a little bit more about sort of why they’re experiencing homelessness and what some of their barriers have been to finding housing or finding employment and then we are essentially triaging. You know, can we get people to– “How can we help you get into housing?” and sometimes there’s going to be a unit in a building that’s really designed and set for people that are experiencing homelessness. Permanent supportive housing is the approach that we have the most of.
Tony Rodriguez: So assessment is really important in this process?
Mark Putnam: Yeah, assessment’s really important, but so is that diversion. Like, as much as we can, like, because if you just assess, and we’re a little bit in this place right now where we’ve realized, like, “Okay. We’ve assessed 7,000 people. We don’t have enough housing units for 7,000 people.” So how can we, before we even get to assessment, because when you get assessed and you get on a list, you start to create expectations for that you’re going to get housing and if we know we don’t have enough of it, how do we, you know, because that diversion program on average is, you know, a thousand, 1500 dollars that we end up spending per person to keep people out of shelter but in some kind of permanent housing. So we’re experi– I mean, I would say the entire– here in Seattle-King County and across the country, there are some elements that will work in any community across the country, but we’re all really experimenting and iterating based on what we’re learning, trying something different. Try not–
Tony Rodriguez: Yes, you’re trying.
Mark Putnam: Yeah, and you try not to be like a, you know, piece of paper in the wind, but…
Tony Rodriguez: Right.
Mark Putnam: And try to, you know, “Okay. No, that’s going to work. We just need to give it more time or commit more deeply to it.” Sometimes that’s the solution, rather than changing again. If we’re not able to divert somebody from coming into our system and they’re needing shelter, they’re needing housing, we assess and we ask a series of questions to determine how vulnerable, how long they’ve been homeless, you know, disabilities, barriers to housing, strengths and really try to figure out sort of how, what’s going to work best. We then triage based on what we find and offer housing when we can. What we try to do is offer any kind of housing if we have the resource, and we know that assessment process is the best thing we have to kind of sort people but it’s not perfect. Every case is individual. Everybody’s experience is individual and preferences are individual, but we really try to use that to standardize across the system. We have five regional access points throughout King County, so geographically King County’s a pretty large county. One is in the core of Seattle, one is in north Seattle that kind of draws on some of the northern cities as well. One is in the east, and then two are in the south part of the county. People can either get assessed at those locations or outreach workers can also do mobile assessments and go to people and assess them.
Tony Rodriguez: I see. Are they all in the same database with the nonprofits?
Mark Putnam: Yeah, so it all feeds into our Homeless Management Information System, which allows us to really get a sense. It’s actually given us more information since the Focus Strategies report or our strategic plan and about what people’s needs are and it’s given us actually an indication that we need more permanent supportive housing than we thought we did.
Tony Rodriguez: , yeah.
Mark Putnam: Yeah. Because so more than 50 percent of the people we’ve assessed have needed– they haven’t been chronically homeless but they’ve needed a higher level of intervention. They’ve scored more highly on the assessment tool, so we’re, you know, we’re trying to figure out what that means. Permanent supportive housing is our most expensive intervention, so it’s the hardest thing to kind of come up with a lot more of, and so we’re– that, that leads us back to sort of the conversation about revenue and just looking for other ways to get this done, get people houses. So we have these regional access points and at those regional access points a person can get assessed for housing or ask some questions about employment. “Are you interested in employment, job training?” In a couple of the sites there are job training programs and things there on site. We’re also, you know, asking them questions and trying to connect them to other resources that might be available, not just housing and shelter. In addition to those regional access points, the city of Seattle and King County have started to incentivize existing emergency shelters and the new shelters as well to become what we’re calling 24/7 comprehensive shelters that are housing focused. We’ve had really poor outcomes overall for our shelters as far as how many people leave shelter to permanent housing. There’s a few reasons for that. One is in some cases the data quality isn’t great. Because somebody comes in the shelter; they’re out the next morning. Some, in some cases, some of those larger shelters, they’re not capturing great information about that person. Maybe not even capturing any information. We also, in some of these shelters, they’re in church basements. They’re really, somebody can come in at nine and they need to leave at six and seven in the morning, and so there’s not a whole lot of time to have a conversation with somebody about, “How can I get you to permanent housing?” You’re really just opening a door, maybe serving a meal, and then in the morning you’re opening the door and pushing people out. It’s providing a survival function. It’s helping people stay alive, and we don’t have the best weather in the winter or, you know, rains nine months out of the year really. So it’s tough and so really we have a lot of that kind of shelter, and churches have really provided that. So some of those shelters have the building where the room where people are sleeping at night is actually used during the day for something else. So we can’t transform those into 24/7 shelters. So we’re in this period where we’re like we’re really working to make those changes, to make the shelters that we can transform into comprehensive shelter and do that. Part of the impetus for that is that we know that so many people that are living unsheltered, and we have more than 4,000 people living unsheltered, but they don’t want to come into our shelters. They’ve told us that the reputation is they have bed bugs or, “I can’t bring my possessions,” or–
Tony Rodriguez: It’s true.
Mark Putnam: You got to be sober. There are all these barriers, so we’re really all about transforming our shelters and making them low barrier, making them places where people can come, because we know that if they’re there, we can help them find housing. They don’t have to come to shelter to find housing. We can serve people and get people, go directly from a tent to housing, but we know that they’re easier to find.
Tony Rodriguez: So how do you assess how many beds you’re going to need in those situations?
Mark Putnam: When you see that there are 4,000 people who are unsheltered, the basic math would be, “Okay. So you need 4,000 shelter beds,” and I think that it’s not a one-to-one equation. It’s very difficult to figure out how much shelter you need. We have more than 3,000 shelter beds in King County that are available every night. We think we still need some more shelter and we’ve been adding hundreds more beds in the last year or two, but what we really need is for those shelter bed to really just be for an emergency. So people are coming in and then they’re moving out. That’s really what we’re focused on is moving people as quickly as we can, making sure that they’re getting connected to a housing case manager as soon as they move in, to be able to move on and out, because if they do that, then there’s more room for the next person to come in. But then again, they only come in if it’s low barrier, doesn’t have all these rules, doesn’t have bed bugs. That transformation of our shelter system that we’re in the midst of right now, if we can’t do that successfully, then we’re not going to be able to address the overall crisis. Here’s another example of that. One of the recommendations of Focus Strategies was to identify your longest-term shelter stayers, those people that have been staying in shelter the longest, and we have hundreds of people that really stayed in shelter more than 300 days last year, so almost every night. So we created a list of the top hundred and in the last month we’ve moved 14 of those people out. Moving them out created the space. Really it was the equivalent of opening a new 75-bed shelter. Because we expect people to be able to move out, for the shelter bed to turn over every, you know, every month or two. So if you’re able to keep that person that’s been using it for 12 months, get them to keep out, then you’ve got five more people that could use it for two or three months during the year, and we have a really large system of– we have dozens and dozens of homeless providers. I couldn’t even give you a total number but I know that we have more than 300 homeless services and housing programs in our community.
Tony Rodriguez: Wow.
Mark Putnam: It’s a huge lift and it’s thousands and thousands of workers in that community, so we’re doing two things. We’re creating some new programs and we’re also working and we’re seeing a lot of providers really making a lot of progress in changing their practices. So over the past really I don’t even know, five, at least, years, we have made a number of changes. One was that we created a coordinated entry system. So all providers that receive any, you know, one dollar of homelessness funding, need to be a part of the coordinated entry system, per their contracts.
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, okay.
Mark Putnam: They also need to reduce their screening criteria into their shelter and their housing programs. To really create a low-barrier, housing-first approach, and we’ve had mostly compliance. You know, the providers have done it, but there are still exceptions and there are still programs that are not, and our, their funders, at the county and the city and United Way and others, are working with them to make sure that they’re doing that. But as far as like whether you need a new program, it depends. If there’s an existing facility, an existing program that is big enough or has the physical qualities that you’re looking for in a new program type and you can convert it. We’ve been working to convert our transitional housing into permanent housing, but in some cases the building itself isn’t set up for it. It doesn’t have a community room, it doesn’t have a place really for staff to be. It’s a converted motel or something like that, so in some cases the physical space itself limits whether you can do that and you might need a new program. So I think what we’re trying to do really is transform the entire system and look at, you know, the programs one by one, but holding to a standard of, “Okay. This is what we mean when we say shelter. This is what we mean when we say transitional housing.” We’ve had kind of too many flavors right now, too many sort of what some people have called, like, boutique programs that sort of, you know, people that wear hats with beards and, you know.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.
Mark Putnam: And, you know, have one arm or something, as opposed to, like, okay, it’s really– we’ll take all comers, then we’ll figure out how to, how to serve you.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit more about the Navigation Center, the history of it and how it’s set up?
Mark Putnam: In the past couple years, we’ve really started to talk a lot to our West Coast cities’ neighbors, San Francisco being one of those, Los Angeles. In San Francisco they have the model called the Navigation Center. Bunch of people from Seattle have gone down and visited it. People liked some components of it. It very much fits this idea of a low-barrier place that people can come in and out of 24/7. There isn’t, like, sort of a lights-out rule and a, like, kick you out in the morning kind of rule. It’s a place for you to really be. You have a place to be. But you can’t be there for very long. So they’re really moving you to– trying to get you to move out of housing. What they’ve done in San Francisco that we are replicating here and, really, the City of Seattle is doing this, is connecting the street outreach teams, and in Seattle we’ve paired police officers with outreach case managers to go to encampments. And what their plan is to really connect those outreach, and the first navigation center will open in Seattle in June of 2017. Navigation teams would meet with people in encampments and give them warning that they’re gonna close an encampment, and we have a number of unauthorized encampments, groupings of tents, maybe 10, 20, 30 tents, and say, “All of you have an offer to move into this navigation center. Here’s the deal. When you move in, we will start working with you right away to move you out. But there aren’t really other rules. Low barrier. You can bring your pets and possessions and partners, and really, kind of, move out.” So San Francisco’s seen a lot of progress, a lot of progress with this in, sort of, moving people to permanent housing. What they’ve done that’s different– and we’re still really working out how it’s gonna work here, but in San Francisco, is that they’ve prioritized some of the housing that they have in their community for those people that they bring in to the navigation center. There’s a lot of competition for our housing. We have a coordinated entry system. So the people that move into the Seattle navigation center, we’re working out, sort of, how they will be assessed for housing and then how they would then get access to housing. But one thing we do know is that we don’t have enough housing for everybody right now, and we always have to do some kind of prioritization.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, it’s a new term, navigation center. There’s like a new model for the non-profits to follow, kind of, _____.
Mark Putnam: Yeah, I mean,, I think some of the programs now, the existing programs, could be transformed in that way, and you’ve got a shelter that maybe needs more funding. You know, in order to transition a shelter from being just an eight or ten hour shelter to twenty-four, it does cost more. You’ve got to have staff there all the time and the programs could transform, become low barrier, really work on housing first, get people in. But then, because it’s shelter and it’s not permanent housing, you’re also working on getting them out; right? And getting them into permanent housing.
Tony Rodriguez: And those are the biggest barriers, I think, to get into there. It is for me and it’s been for the last four years, because of my things, my dog, my girlfriend. They won’t take it, so I’m not going to go. You know, I can’t just give away every last thing I own. It’s just not going to happen.
Mark Putnam: For some good reasons, or some reasons, that evolved over the years, you know, programs, kind of, add rules. But what we want to do is make sure that there’s as few rules as possible. Obviously, you have to worry about safety and the building itself, and the other people in the building and all those things. But, you know, as few rules as possible, so that you get people in and then you start to address the challenges that they’re facing, whether it’s health or employment or whatever it is.
Tony Rodriguez: This housing resource center is another tool in this toolbox. Tell me a little bit about that, the housing resource.
Mark Putnam: What we’ve been focused on is really more and more rental assistance programs. You know, we don’t have enough non-profit owned housing. So people also need to access the private market, and ultimately, that’s where we want them– some people to be; right? But we’ve had a hard time finding units. We have a really low vacancy rate, and rapidly increasing housing rental costs. So in 2008, we started a program called the Landlord Liaison Project, where we have had a non-profit that brokers, basically deals with landlords, and says, “Okay. Can we get access to five of your units or your one unit, and refer somebody who’s experienced homelessness to that unit? And here’s what we’ll do for you. If there’s any damage to the unit, we have a risk mitigation fund. So we will pay you back if there’s damage. If you’re having any issues with a tenant, please talk to the tenant. But if you need to talk to us, we’re available. Give us a call. We’ll work with you and we’ll provide some case management to that person, if that’s what they need, and that’s part of the program that they’re in. Not everybody needs that.” That’s been in place since 2008. It’s been pretty successful. We’ve had a lot of landlords, most of the landlords, 95 percent I think, if they rented to one person, they came back and rented to somebody else. But we’ve, kind of, worked on getting access to more units and we want to really create this housing resource center that is really– we’re growing all of our rental assistance programs and, actually, now, you know, at least, 10 or more non-profits are providing rental assistance. So they’re all going and searching for landlords themselves. We’d like for one place that has that particular skill to do that. We’re actually trying to follow a model that Atlanta put together, called Open Doors, where a property management company, a group of property owners, essentially, created this non-profit. And people with experience in business, essentially, in property management, are doing the asking of the landlords. So it’s not a social service provider, but it’s a property management company that’s really doing the brokering. And then, we think we’re going to– we’ll see some more success that way. But really, I think, everyone I talk to around the country is trying to figure this out. Because we’re all trying to get access to housing in a really competitive housing market. I would imagine in San Diego– not knowing. But I would imagine that your non-profits are doing this work already. So if they’re operating a rapid rehousing program– or your housing authorities definitely are doing it with their Section 8 program. They’re out there looking for landlords. They’ve got relationships with landlords. So the work is– that work is definitely happening. This is a way of doing it that centralizes it. We think it can raise, kind of, the visibility, too. We think that you can create some incentives for landlords to be a part of it by being a part of the community solution to any homelessness, and you can, kind of, create some visibility and some buzz around, you know, that property management company that’s– “Look what they’re doing. They put a hundred units, you know, forward last year.” We might not know that they have 10,000 units and a hundred’s not that many. But still, it’s huge. We need a hundred units from anybody that’ll give it to us. So I think it is a really important thing. I think, in any– everywhere around the country, there’s no– you can’t build your way out with the money that we have now. You could build your way out of the homelessness problem, nationally, with– you know, if HUD and the federal government really put forward the billions of dollars that we need for that. But in the absence of that new investment, which I don’t see coming, we need to keep building, build with local dollars, the capital to build new buildings. But we also need to rely on rental assistance and have other people build for us, but get access to those units.
Tony Rodriguez: I know you’re at the early stages of this housing resource center, but if we wanted to bring this idea back to San Diego, what are some of the first things that we should do?
Mark Putnam: Well, I think you want to look at some of the ways that these programs have been set up in other parts of the country, particularly high cost areas. You know, a lot of people actually have looked at the way that we’ve done our Landlord Liaison Project for the last eight or nine years as a model. So we want even more success. We want to even be able to house more people. So I would look at Open Doors in Atlanta, and look at the model that they’ve created. Look at the housing resource center description of what we want our model to be. We’ve, kind of, visioned it out, and that was a part of the Bard Poppy report for the city of Seattle in an Appendix. I think it is a useful resource that we’re using as our guide. And then start meeting with property owners. We met with property owners in the past couple of months, and said, “What would it take for you to rent more units to us? And who do you want to work with on this kind of program? What type of agency?” We’re in a place right now where we’re actually having a hard time finding the operator of this new model. We’re trying to find, not a traditional non-profit, but instead, a company that’s already doing property management kind of work. We think that kind of business-to-business model is going to be better. So you’ve got to really start putting the word out, like, “Hey, is this something that this property management company or this–” you know, maybe, it’s a United Way. We’re trying to figure out, sort of, who could do it. So starting to have the conversations about what the vision is. And I think what we’ve learned is that in government– I’ve worked in non-profit and in government, but I haven’t worked in business. I mean, we don’t know. We don’t know this housing market as well as people working in the housing market do. So get them together. Start talking with them. They want to be part of the solution. They recognize that they are in the housing business, and then there’s this homelessness problem and that they can be a part of the solution. So I think that’s important.
Tony Rodriguez: So who would fund this organization?
Mark Putnam: The way that we’re planning to fund it is the way that we funded the project we’ve had for the last eight years, which is a combination of city, county, and philanthropic funds. And that’s, essentially, the formula that we’re putting together for this project, moving forward, too.
Tony Rodriguez: Would this take away the Housing Commission’s role in this?
Mark Putnam: No. I don’t think so. In our area, we have housing authorities, is what we call them. So Seattle has an authority. King County has an authority and rent and housing authority. They all operate Section 8 or Housing Choice Voucher programs. They still have the need to have relationships with property owners and landlords, themselves. We also have a number of non-profits that are reaching out to landlords and trying to build relationships and secure units. What we hope is that those non-profits will consolidate their landlord recruitment into this housing resource center. And in some cases, we’ll ask them to do that via contract, and in others, we may not control the contract. So like I said, we may ask them if– and really, they will want to do it if that housing resource center is successful. You know, if it’s actually getting access to units, then they’ll be all over it.
Tony Rodriguez: So Paul Allen donated a million dollars to look into this modular home, tiny housing, thing for homeless. What do you think about that? Is that the way to go?
Mark Putnam: Paul Allen and his foundation have made a donation to Compass Housing Alliance to really pilot this approach of using modular homes. There’s a new way of building a unit. I think it’s costing 70 or 80,000 a unit. They want to get the cost down. Because that’s still– that’s more than some types of construction, but it’s also a lot less than the almost $400,000 per unit that it’s costing to build even the non-profit housing. It’s something that can be replicated. The cost goes down if you build more of them. That project opens this year in South Seattle and we’ll see, sort of, how that goes. But I think it’s going to go well, and that was funded by philanthropy. And government, local government, is also interested in solutions that can help us really get access to housing, through the housing resource center, but also to building housing quicker. And we are not giving up on the pipeline of creating the more expensive, but essential, apartment buildings in urban areas. We need those buildings to get built. We need them to be near transit. Unless the city becomes less and less expensive, it’s more and more important that they’re close to our light rail stations and things like that but also, that they are in the city. Because if we put all of our affordable housing outside of the city, then we need to be integrated in that way. And we also have a lot of activity in our community around everything from sheds, essentially, to backyard cottages or accessory dwelling units or mother-in-law’s. So there are a lot of people thinking about this and trying to get creative around how can we just house more people now? It’s all coming from a really compassionate place. Certainly having a roof over your head in any way is better than not, in a community where it rains nine months out of the year, really. But if we’re spending a lot of time, a lot of money on things that don’t have heat, where you can’t stay long term, that doesn’t have plumbing, that’s where I have concern. This year he started a project called the Block Project, where he has been recruiting people that are housed in a neighborhood, somebody that’s living in a house, to say, “Hey, when you put this 10 by 10 or 10 by 13 building, a little house, small house or cottage, in your backyard and host somebody who’s experiencing homelessness in that unit, it’s got solar paneling on it, it’s got plumbing in it.” He’s just getting started with that. I think he has six or seven that’s just started in the last month. So I think that’s really going to be helpful. Of course, that’s not the only solution. It’s just another example of how we need lots of different things happening in a community, I think, but also, as an example of how the community can give back. The City of Seattle is cooperating, as far as making sure that it fits their zoning and is allowable. So .
Tony Rodriguez: We just talked to some people in Los Angeles and, before they did their bond and their tax hike, they polled people to see what was the number one issue, and it was homelessness.
Mark Putnam: Yeah, very clear. It’s the number one issue here in Seattle, too.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. What can we do, as a community, to get the ball rolling with solving this homeless issue _______?
Mark Putnam: Well, as far as what can be done in the short term, and we also, in our community, have a business community that’s clamoring for results. They have been supportive of adding more shelter beds. They’ve been supportive of some of the changes that we’re making to lower barriers to programs or the housing resource center. We have 39 cities in King County. So some of them are small and in some places, even in some neighborhoods in the city of Seattle, the solutions that people are coming up with are to address the problem of visible homelessness, people in front of them, the tent across the street. As opposed to a solution that will prevent the next person from setting up a tent there. There are some things that can be done quickly. It’s not a quick fix. This is a big issue that needs a long-term strategic approach, and it’s going to take patience and it’s going to take commitment, and it’s going to take everybody. It’s not that the local government can fix this on their own or the business community can. It’s going to take everybody.
Tony Rodriguez: The service providers are going to have to make some changes in their relationship with the government. How does that work? How do you get them to accept that we’re all going to have to make changes to have this be a good outcome?
Mark Putnam: Last year, when the focus strategies report was released, we heard a lot from providers who said, “Look, sounds like we’re getting blamed here for the rising homelessness in our community, and that’s not fair.” I think what the reports actually said and what we’ve tried to communicate, and haven’t always done the best job of, is that the approach that we have to homelessness in Seattle, King County, was created by a lot of people. It was created by local government, elected officials, and the providers. And, actually, the report said– and again we asked for this analysis, this sort of third party review, of how we were doing. Thus, they had strong advice for all of us, including my organization, around being more action oriented and creating a smaller governance structure and being clearer about, sort of, how decisions are made. So there’s a lot of, call it criticism, call it advice, for all of us. But I understand. You know, providers, they are seeing and doing the work day to day. They have a lot of expertise. If they don’t feel honored for that while being urged to make changes to improve the number of people they’re housing or adopt a new best practice, and if they don’t feel honored, then they’re unlikely to move. So I think we’ve not always done that perfectly, as far as the communicating to providers and honoring them. But I think if you do that and you stay focused and true to the reason that you’re doing all of this change is to house more people. In the last three years, we’ve housed 50 percent more people. So in 2016, 50 percent more people than in 2013. So the providers should get all the credit for that and although, you know, a lot of people have been working to add more resources, but also to change practices, shift funding from programs that aren’t housing as many people to programs that are housing more. The way that we’re doing that right now is with performances that we’ve set minimum standards, so that programs that are housing at least– depends on the housing model, but say, at least, 50 percent of the people that come in their program are exiting to permanent housing. Then, they would be eligible for funding. If they’re housing less than that, then they’re not going to be eligible for getting funding. Right now, we’re offering training. We’ve done training for shelter providers to become housing first, and reduce their barriers, the case managers, the managers, and directors of those programs, too. So it’s, kind of, providing some new skills, while also, sort of, saying, “Okay. As you apply for funding next year, we’re going to base you on your past performance, as we’re grading essentially all the programs.” Whenever we open up funding to be available for programs, we get, like, two or three times as many applicants as we can fund. We don’t have enough funding to go around to all the programs or to house everybody, at this point. We’re seeing that we can house more people by making the changes we’re making. So we’re encouraged by that. I think the providers are, too.
Tony Rodriguez: So a third party is what you’re saying is a good thing to assess the whole thing?
Mark Putnam: Yeah.
Tony Rodriguez: An outside group to…
Mark Putnam: Yeah, it was helpful. I don’t think you should have an outside group write your entire plan. I think you’ve got to have– there’s got to be strong community input. You’ve got to have strong community leadership to implement it. And there aren’t very much people who are humble enough to take somebody else’s ideas and implement them. So you’re going to have a mix of people that they’ve got to see their own thinking in there, too.
Tony Rodriguez: Can you explain to me what an infrastructure organization is and some of the roles they play?
Mark Putnam: All Home serves as the continuum of care for Seattle, King County. And every organization or the recipient of HUD dollars across the country needs to set up something that has a board and, sort of, executes the functions like applying for the federal funding and doing the management system, all of that. We’ve taken it a step further. Our aim is for, both, to meet those HUD standards around having a board and managing the continuum of care grants. But also, to ensure that the other funds in the community that are being spent on homelessness are aligned with that and so we’re all measuring the same outcomes. We have a staff of eight. We organize around our work in capacity building of providers and of funders around best practices, so training. We have an annual conference. We also have performance measurement and evaluation staff that are not just managing the homeless management information system, but are doing the data analysis, creating visualization of that data. We use the software program Tableau to be able to, kind of, visualize, sort of, our main goals and metrics. I think an infrastructure or organization for something this complex with so many different people involved is really important. We continue to evolve, as the needs in the community change. We don’t manage the funds directly here, ourselves. The city and the county really do those functions because they’re set up in that way. They have that infrastructure. But we serve this function of really aligning all of the funders and the providers toward common goals. And as I said earlier, we set up those goals to make homelessness rare, brief, one time, and reduce racial disparity among people experiencing homelessness. One of the ways that we’ve gotten the funding more aligned is that each year, for the past eight or ten years probably, we’ve released a combined notice of funding availability, and our board sets the priorities by which those funds will be spent. Each of the individual funders, the city, the county, the United Way, releases their funds individually, but under that umbrella of a combined NOFA. And then, this year when we released the focus strategies report, we took their recommendation really seriously around needing to have higher standards for the outcomes coming out of our program. Got the city, the county, and United Way to agree to a memorandum of understanding, where they agreed that in all of their contracts and all of their funding that they would hold providers to the same standards, that the outcomes that they would judge them on would be the same. It was challenging and they were aggressive, I guess, as far as the performance needing to improve in a lot of providers. But it also makes it easier for providers, in some ways, that if all of their funders are using the same outcomes and measuring them in the same way. Because if they’re measuring their progress in different ways, then it’s very difficult for them to operate. So those are a couple of the ways that we do that.
Tony Rodriguez: So I can see it making your system more efficient. But yet, when people look out there, they say, “Wow, there’s still a lot of homeless out there.” What do you say to that?
Mark Putnam: I say they’re right. So if we’ve housed a thousand more people in 2016– households, actually, a thousand more households in 2016 than in 2013, well, the person who’s seeing an encampment pop up in the park, in their neighborhood, is not seeing that success. They’re not seeing that person move into housing. What they’re seeing is somebody set up a tent in their neighborhood. What we’re struggling with is that while we’re housing more people, we could say that it’s efficiency. You know, we’ve gotten some new resources, but we’ve also gotten better at what we do, I think, the providers and everybody. But we’ve also seen homelessness grow. Our point in time homelessness count, which ultimately is the measure by which all of our communities are measured on homelessness continues to increase. It’s 10 percent or more each year, the last four or five years. The reasons for that are varied and they’re complex. What we can do with the homelessness funding and within the homeless service provider system is house as many people as we can with the money we have, and get more and more efficient. What we can’t do, at this point, is control the housing market, which is not– housing markets are not just local. They’re statewide, they’re national, international. In Seattle, we have international investors buying up buildings and then not even occupying them, and that’s driving– they buy them as investments. It’s a very complicated issue that we’re dealing with, and I think communities like Seattle and San Francisco and LA and San Diego, Portland, really up and down the West Coast, we’re all seeing double-digit increases in the number of people experiencing homelessness. Particularly the unsheltered, and it is related, significantly, to the rising rents and the decreasing number of units that are really available for rent. It’s also related to other things. Certainly, the opiate addiction crisis and, you know, Washington State does not fund as well as it should its mental health system. I think ________ better. So all those things contribute. So we are focused on what we can control, and we ask our elected officials at the state level and the federal level, as well as at the local level, to really fund the safety net that people need. People need housing. They need mental health treatment. They need substance abuse treatment. People need that on demand, not in a month from now. Like, you know, you’re asking for treatment, you’re addicted, then you need that now, not tomorrow or three weeks from now. So we don’t have that fully yet, but that’s our goal. And we need long term systemic solutions. So I would say that the most important thing is for people that are focused on homelessness in San Diego to focus on housing as many people as they can with those homeless dollars and put pressure on the other, quote/unquote, “systems of housing,” mental health, criminal justice system, the foster care system, to ensure that they’re taking care of people that are coming in their systems. Because too often, in Seattle, one-fourth of the people that are unsheltered in Seattle were in the foster care system at some point, 25 percent. So many of them came out of– I don’t know the number that came out of the criminal justice system. Those are important. You’ve got to be an advocate, as well as an administrator, I think, to come out to do this well.
Tony Rodriguez: So housing and buyer market is the way to go?
Mark Putnam: You need housing. There’s no question that housing is part of the answer. So Washington State has a statewide housing trust fund, and almost every building, if not every building, that’s been built for people experiencing homelessness has some funding from the state housing trust fund in it, over the last 20 years. In Seattle, we have a housing levy that also pays for affordable housing, and some of it’s for people experiencing homelessness. We need more funding for housing capital for building housing that’s really dedicated just for the homelessness population. We also need it for people who are earning low incomes, who aren’t homeless, and people who are, you know, maybe, moderate income and are homeless. But I think the greatest need is for people at the very lowest incomes, from the 0 to 30 percent of median incomes.
Tony Rodriguez: Okay. This is very informative. Glad to meet you.
Mark Putnam: Thanks a lot. Appreciate the work you guys are doing to tackle this complicated issue.
Tony Rodriguez: You too, you too. Okay.
Mark Putnam: Thanks a lot.
Tony Rodriguez: All right.
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