#Homelessness

Apparently there are some new readers to #Hashtag. Welcome aboard! If you're introduction was #CliffMass, and you are looking for the same kind of snark...well, you're in for some disappointment. The fact is that most of what you read here is going to be pretty dry. 

With that said, the #CliffMass post was about homelessness. And it's true: I've written a lot on the topic. One might go so far as to say it's a top issue for me, and something I would like our city to continue to push forward on. 

Of course, there remains no single "silver bullet," if you will, to solving the crisis. While I wholeheartedly reject proposals that would criminalize poverty (and you should, too), or ideas that begin fledgling as a result of the aesthetics of seeing extreme poverty, there are a lot of plans in place, coming online, and ideas coming out that will be crucial. And they don't all specifically touch on intervention. 

Preventing homelessness in the first place is a key part. As the data shows, for every $100 per month average increase in rent, we see a corresponding increase in homelessness. The top reasons people experience homelessness are all economic - loss of a job, bills too high, rent too high. So how do we address this with the policy options available? 

For one, ensuring that there is quick access to rent support for families who are on the cusp of losing housing due to any of the economic reasons. While this may well require additional funding, the long-term benefits are significant. The cost of re-housing someone is much higher than providing short term support, after all. The benefits to the community are also significant. Kids who have stability in housing and food access do better in schools, with fewer behavioral disruptions. 

But we must also look for policy changes to streamline this process. It should be easy to find - and easy to access - for qualified families in Seattle. Yet, one complaint I hear from people is the coordinated entry system that puts up so many roadblocks and hurdles to accessing services, that it becomes a full-time job in and of itself. And I think this is something a lot of folks aren't aware of: the sheer amount of time associated with accessing the social safety net is daunting. Coupled with barriers to access, this itself accounts for some of the chronic homelessness populations we see around the country. 

This readily extends to intervention programs. The idea that people experiencing homelessness should have to change to meet what you or I perceive a social norm to be clearly isn't working. This is why we are seeing more low-barrier shelter options, and why the federal government moved toward a housing first policy during the Obama administration. Because whether or not someone is intoxicated should not preclude them from having access to safe housing. 

If you don't buy the moral argument, there's also the fiscal argument. Data shows that the cost associated with low-barrier housing is much lower than just leaving people outdoors. Fewer ambulance rides, fewer ER visits, fewer utilization of resources. What's better (for those who believe that people should have to get sober to obtain government services), data also shows that folks are more likely to take advantage of treatment services once the trauma associated with experiencing homelessness is alleviated. 

Ultimately, much of this comes down to the capital costs. Building more housing. Of course we are addressing this in Seattle, and also looking at different types of housing and materials, and different approaches. The BLOCK program, for instance, is a great opportunity for people to share their wealth of land with a community member in need. My friend My Tam Nguyen is partnering to expand the use of modular pre-fabricated buildings as a means to provide quick, and relatively cheap, housing that is also high-quality and built to last. 

One thing that is also important in all of this: what are we doing to the community that people experiencing homelessness build. If you have had the opportunity to meet the folks living in the encampments in Seattle, for instance, you'll see a community that has been built, where people help each other, and spend time with each other. I was talking with a provider recently who told me about a man who was given a key to an apartment, and gave it back after a short while. He was alone, and missed his friends. 

This is where we can innovate in what we are doing. Microhousing, for instance, provides a model of privacy in an efficiency unit, while also having the community space that brings people together. Identifying, with providers, where group placements could work is an option that I believe is worth exploring. Tearing communities apart because one person won the housing lottery is not exactly ideal. 

That we are moving forward with multiple navigation centers is a very positive step, as well. Along with having them throughout the city. Someone sleeping outdoors in Lake City should have access to safe shelter and services, and the easiest way to provide that, and ensure that shelter and services is used, is by providing support near where people are living outdoors now. While there is an argument to be made that it is more cost-effective to cluster social services in one area, I'm not convinced it is if the end result is fewer people taking advantage of the available programs. 

As we look at our council and mayoral candidates in 2017, one other thing should be considered: are we willing to do an in-depth review of contracts, and invest in technological upgrades to better connect providers across the region? It's politically unpopular to question whether funds are being spent well, but that is the job of elected officials. I do not believe that we need to continually throw money at problems without ensuring that the money is being spent well. Some things are just expensive (housing, for instance). And other things should cost more (so that they come with living wages for the folks doing this important work). 

It's a bit of a crazy year in Seattle politics. But I believe that we can continue to push a conversation that ends with policies that will provide housing and services to those in need. Sweeping people around isn't working. If our city is willing to make the capital investment, and the structural changes, I do believe we can have an approach that provides safe and stable shelter for people - and that's a win for everyone involved.