Since I’ve been on the Seattle City Council, city government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in direct assistance to our neighbors experiencing homelessness — including emergency shelters, affordable housing, counseling, rental assistance, legal aid and other services. Despite these investments, the number of people living unsheltered on our streets and sidewalks and in our greenbelts has increased.
Are we investing our resources wisely to achieve the best possible results?
In March 2015, Mayor Ed Murray and the city Human Services Department released the Homelessness Investment Analysis, which concluded that we spend 70 percent of our funding on interventions after homelessness has occurred, 19 percent on permanent housing services and only 11 percent on attempting to prevent homelessness. Nationally, some cities are spending more on homeless prevention efforts and rapid rehousing. These cities — including Houston, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and New Orleans — are achieving far greater success in reducing homelessness than we are.
We need to retool our approach. The people of Seattle deserve better. They deserve to have their tax dollars invested wisely, efficiently and effectively. And those experiencing homelessness — from whatever cause — deserve better, too.
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In the coming weeks, the mayor will send the City Council another review of the city government’s response to homelessness and his recommendations for moving forward. In anticipation of the mayor’s recommendations, and based on a review of national best practices, here’s what I hope to see.
▪ Compassionate response: We all want Seattle to be a city of compassion, a city that cares for our most vulnerable residents. Frankly, how we respond to people in need, including those experiencing homelessness, mental-health and addiction challenges, defines us as a people. The homeless crisis provides an excellent opportunity to live out a purposeful compassion.
▪ Client-first focus: National experts have repeatedly told us that Seattle’s current response to homelessness prioritizes systems and providers. While systems are crucial, and local providers do admirable work in often difficult circumstances, we need to shift to a strong client focus — an approach that adjusts and manages systems, policy and spending to best serve the people needing help.
Several years ago someone wrote me a note that said, “We have created a homeless industrial complex.”
This person meant that we have allowed our thinking, focus and energy to drift from the individual people needing help to the development of a highly complicated, interwoven network of service providers that compete for funding, absent any serious focus on whether or not we are actually achieving positive outcomes.
This is why a shift in emphasis is required. Our funding, our outcome measures and our policy decisions should have a razor-focused intensity on those we are serving. We need client-first intentional engagement aimed at specific individuals. We need a service-delivery model that identifies people by name, assesses their specific needs and provides the best solutions for them as individuals.
▪ Common needs assessment; coordinated entry: Through the leadership of All Home, United Way and the city’s Human Services Department, we are making good progress toward common-needs assessment and what’s called “coordinated entry.” A common-assessment tool helps identify the critical needs of each individual or family. Coordinated entry quickly steers people to the housing-service provider best able to meet their needs.
▪ Prioritize families with children: We should immediately get families with children off the street and into permanent housing. Frankly, a system that allows families with children to live in tents or in cars is shameful. Let’s get these families into a safe, secure and appropriate homes as fast as possible.
▪ Outcome contracting: We should be focused on outcomes, not just outputs. Outcomes are the results achieved; outputs are more about volume and activities. Let’s contract for specific outcomes and invest our resources for the maximum benefit — move people quickly into housing.
▪ Housing first: Everything we do should be about getting people off the street and into housing as quickly as possible, recognizing that some, but not all, will need supportive services for success. This should be our guiding North Star.
It’s also important to follow a “harm-reduction” approach to services as we have done successfully at the 1811 Eastlake project of the Downtown Emergency Service Center. The harm-reduction model provides safe and clean housing to individuals wrestling with addiction and homelessness, without any barriers to entry. The academic research shows it works: Emergency-room visits decline, arrests decline, jail time declines, health outcomes improve.
Some will object to these changes, especially the linking of funding to achieving specific measurable outcomes. But, it is very clear to me that we need some healthy disruption of our response to homelessness.
Finally, we should remember that we can’t do this work alone. The state and federal governments have responsibility here, too. Mental-health services, addiction treatment, and housing all need significant funding to reverse years of neglect — neglect that we see every day on our city streets and sidewalks.
Tim Burgess is a member of the Seattle City Council.