Seattle / King County Assessment & Recommendations – Full Report
Below are my “cliffs notes” version of the full report, mixed with my own thoughts.
Defining the Scope and Goal
First, we are not trying to solve the housing affordability crisis. A lot of people barely have the money to pay for their housing, but few of those people will every end up sleeping on the sidewalk, in their car, or in a shelter. Housing affordability strategies are important for creating vibrant communities, but they are separate from responses to homelessness. The challenge of achieving housing affordability is massive and requires a level of resources far beyond the scope of the homeless system.
Secondly, we are not trying to end poverty. We can get people housed and they may remain housed even if they continue to live in poverty.
And while the homeless system may help people connect to other services such as behavioral health, education, income, and more, its success is not measured by whether changes are made in these areas. As long as people do not become homeless again, the system has achieved its objectives. The homeless system ensures everyone has somewhere to live, even if that means a housing situation that is not immediately the most stable or desirable setting.
Transitional housing takes a different approach. It tries to fix people and then put them back into regular life. Programs are from a few months to 2 years and involve sobriety, job training, and more. People frequently don’t want to go into these programs because of the rules or are incapable of completing them and become homeless again. Many transitional housing programs have proven to be expensive and ineffective at solving homelessness.
Rapid re-housing is a fast and relatively inexpensive solution that can end homelessness for most people. There is evidence that most homeless people can be housed and will not become homeless again even if they do not get a permanent affordable unit.
Rapid-rehousing is rental assistance for a few months to over a year. Services include help with locating housing and case management focused on maintaining stability in housing and linking the person to existing community resources.
For rapid re-housing to be brought to scale, it requires landlord partnerships championed by elected leadership, a robust landlord liaison / housing locator program, and non-standard housing solutions such as shared housing, rooming houses, housing in outlying areas of the county, other housing solutions often considered less desirable to be used at scale. Housing standard must be limited to health, safety, and client choice, and not go beyond that.
People who receive rapid re-housing assistance may continue to experience rent burdens, may move repeatedly, or may end up having to share their rental unit to make ends meet. However, they are unlikely to return to being unsheltered or to re-enter shelter. Rapid re-housing can work for all populations and it is important to not exclude people with significant housing barriers. This method offers a proven, though imperfect, solution. The alternative is to wait until more permanently affordable housing is produced, which may be indefinitely while people continue to live in encampments, vehicles, and shelters.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness has research about rapid re-housing. One important recommendation is to not assume that rapid re-housing will not work for people because of their conditions.
Permanent Supportive Housing and Other Permanent Housing
For a relatively small number of people who are homeless and for whom rapid re-housing is not effective, permanently affordable housing may be the only way they can maintain housing.
This requires aggressively targeting available affordable housing (including Housing Authority vouchers and public housing and non-profit owned affordable developments) to people identified through the Coordinated Access System. This will ensure that these scarce affordable units are being put to their best use and will help reduce the numbers of long-term homeless people in the community.
Funders of affordable housing must insist that providers not impose barriers to serving homeless people who otherwise meet eligibility criteria. Some non-profit, subsidized affordable housing is currently more difficult to access than private market housing.
Freeing up capacity in supportive housing is also important and can be accomplished by large-scale “moving on” initiatives to help tenants who no longer need intensive support to transition to mainstream permanent housing. Tenants who have Shelter Plus Care or other voucher sources can be transitioned into the Housing Choice Voucher program to free up their Shelter Plus Care subsidy for another client.
Although permanent supportive housing is the most expensive intervention, it creates cost savings by reducing emergency room visits, jail time, and the emergency use of other public services. Its overall cost effectiveness depends on targeting it towards those with the highest needs and housing barriers.
Serving People Who Are Literally Homeless
Many people who enter shelters and homeless programs are not literally homeless. They are housed or living in places with more people than normal (“doubled up”), but assessed as being at-risk of homelessness. These people divert resources away from serving those who are living on the streets, in their cars, or have been in shelters for a long time.
A person’s score on the VI-SPDAT vulnerability index does not necessarily correspond to their length of time homeless. Someone who only recently became homeless or who may not even yet be living on the streets (living in a doubled up situation) might score high on a vulnerability index, while someone who has been homeless for years might score lower. The person not yet literally homeless or who is newly homeless has a much better chance of obtaining or maintaining housing on their own or with minor assistance than does the long term homeless person. To maximize a system’s ability to actually reduce the number of people living on the streets, in cars, and in shelters, prioritization should take into heavy consideration the length of time that someone is homeless.
Diversion provides small amounts of financial assistance and mediation / problem solving services. An over-the-phone screening process can determine whether someone could be successfully diverted.
Diversion focuses on helping people develop the skills needed to successfully live with housemates plus some one-time cash assistance to remain where they are staying (typically with friends or family) or move directly to other housing. We are bad at judging for which clients diversion from shelters can be effective, so it’s important to attempt diversion for all people seeking shelter regardless of circumstances or assessment scores. In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, this program has successfully diverted 60% of its single adult clients.
Traditional programs aimed at preventing homelessness target people who have their own apartment and have received an eviction notice. Yet there is little evidence that these people would become homeless. To make sure that money spent on preventing homelessness actually prevents more people from living on the streets, in cars, and in shelters, resources must be targeted at those who are assessed as at imminent risk (one or two days) of becoming unsheltered.
With effective diversion programs, it’s generally possible to serve all unsheltered people with existing shelter capacity and reduce shelter capacity over time.
System change means changing what people do. This could mean people loosing jobs or being retrained. It means physical infrastructure changes such as reconfiguring buildings to serve a new purposes, eliminating buildings from the system, or adding different buildings to the system. It means changing power structures and how decisions are made. It means changing which organizations receive money and the criteria used to distribute it.
These changes are hard, but they are made even harder by our nature as human beings. It’s hard to give up doing something that is good for some ways, especially when it’s something we’ve been involved in building for many years. And for a person with decision making power over funding for programs, it’s extremely hard to tell a friend that you will not be funding their program anymore. But this is the work of creating a true system out of an array of homeless programs.
This interaction between the non-profit service providers and the decision makers about funding is the crux of the challenge in changing how we address homelessness and why many regions fail to make progress. This op-ed in the Seattle times from March 10th, 2017 tells the story well.
To make these challenging changes to our system, we need to create metrics that help force us into making the best decisions, and we as the general public need to hold are leaders to using those metrics. These metrics include data quality (HMIS), bed/unit utilization rate, entries from literal homelessness, length of stay, exits to permanent housing, cost per permanent housing exit, and returns to homelessness. By focusing on these metrics, we can assure that our system is accomplishing its goal of efficiently housing people who live on the streets, in cars, and it shelters.
And behind the scenes, those making the decisions on which programs to fund must be separate from the organizations receiving the funds. The whole system has to shift so that it becomes acceptable and possible for some providers to lose funding.
What can the general public do?
The general public can be a key player in this by asking for reports on how the homeless programs in their districts are doing. The elected officials will have access to the key metrics listed in the section above as well as the goals for each program. The general public will also have access to this information at rtfhsd.org.
When advocating towards elected officials, start with your county supervisor. The county has to most to gain financially from a long term solution to this issue and can contribute the most to its success. Their role includes the management of social services and jails.
Next, move on to your mayor. Because the elected officials at the city level bear the brunt of public outrage, they tend to focus on ineffective knee jerk reactions to homelessness. In additional to asking about how the homeless programs are doing in their district, emphasize that you do not want a quick fix. You want real long term results through the funding of effective programs that specifically focus on housing our unsheltered homeless population.
Finally, speak with your city council representative. In addition to the above points, emphasize the importance of their support when affordable housing projects are proposed in their district. Elected officials must deliver the message to reluctant neighbors that every community has a role to play in solving homelessness. They must be courageous is shepherding projects through the approval process.
Public support towards our elected officials on these points is essential to counteracting the inevitable resistance that the current players in the system will have. There will be outreach to the media about why their program is important and why it should continue to be funded, despite it not performing well according to the agreed upon criteria. There will be private meetings between elected officials and influential people about why funding for a certain program should be maintained. It will be extraordinarily difficult for the decision makers to move funding away from those costly and ineffective programs.
That’s why it is our job as the general public to provide vocal support to our elected officials in making these tough data-driven decisions. Requesting performance reports will make it politically infeasible to continue funding poor performing service providers.
Timeline In San Diego
Over the past year, a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes in San Diego to prepare for these changes. The computer systems have been set up so that we will soon have access to provider level performance reports at rtfhsd.org. The criteria for evaluating service providers will soon be completed. A regional analysis and plan is being created that will be released later this year. This plan is being created by the same company, Focus Strategies, that created the plan for Seattle, so there will likely be many similarities.
We can already advocate towards our elected officials and talk to friends, family, and co-workers about these ideas. But when the regional plan is released in late 2017, we will need to amp up advocacy for the bold action needed to implement that plan. Much like the Climate Action Campaign is the watchdog organization for the implementation of the Climate Action Plan that was created by the City of San Diego, we need to be that watchdog for this community plan, creating public pressure for its implementation.
Other regions across California have done property tax and sales tax increases to provide additional funding for the construction of affordable housing for homeless people and to fund the wrap around services and rent subsidies. Although additional money can be useful, it is important that the difficult system changes happen first.
Physiologically and politically, a tax measure allow elected leaders, those in the homeless services sector, and the general public to have an escape valve for the pressure created hard decisions have to be made. Let’s first see the results of the deep analysis that Focus Strategies is doing to see if additional funding is needed, at what point it might be needed, and for what strategic purpose.
In the meantime, let’s not think about an affordable housing bond as THE solution to homelessness, but as something aimed at addressing a separate and also very important issue.
Everyone can agree that homelessness is not good for our region. Everyone can agree that money should be well spent. Let’s get align ourselves behind those agreed upon ideas and end homelessness in San Diego!