From Streets to Shelter

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Even though we provide millions of dollars for supportive housing, according to the One Night Count last January 3,123 people remain on our streets county-wide, without permanent shelter. This is a public health and public safety crisis–for those who are unsheltered and for everyone in the community. I heard powerful testimony from those who attended the public hearing on the 2015-2016 budget last week, including Real Change vendors and staff who carried in a coffin to demonstrate their point: shelter saves lives. Without shelter, people die.

Shelter Saves Lives
Shelter Saves Lives

As I often say, there’s no silver bullet to solve problems this complex but there is silver buckshot.

The Housing First” model links people with support services, either on-site or in the community. Housing First successfully keeps people out of high cost emergency rooms and the criminal justice system. Research studies nationally have concluded what we intuitively know — that people who are housed see their physical and mental health improve.

Along with our regional partners in the Committee to End Homelessness, the City of Seattle is investing money in programs to prevent homelessness and reduce the duration of how long people are living without shelter. With these financial investments, many more people can move off the street anEncampmentd on with their lives

Our human service providers estimate that about 1/3 of people who are struggling to survive on the streets of Seattle are dealing with mental and physical illness or addiction problems.

Appropriately, this is where we direct much of the City’s Human Services budget and where we need serious assistance from the State and Federal governments. We need to focus on the most medically fragile unshelted people. We also need to turn serious attention towards those who are less fragile.

We can have immediate impact by creating more shelter – with services—to help move people who are unshelted because of financial problems (as opposed to health issues) off our streets and into safe places where they can restructure their lives.  Hence the simple name:  Streets to Shelter.

Here’s how this could work:

Mayor Murray has established a 60 day task force called the Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homeless to imagine expanded solutions for emergency housing needs.

I have previously proposed how we could create a plan to help the people in our community who are “sleeping rough”.   Here are a couple examples:  Divide Responsibility Regionally; and  Tiny Houses Fast to Build.  Building on our Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, the goal is to provide appropriate support so people can move up and on with their lives.

One possibility is to contract with experienced service providers to coordinate temporary shelter and case management in some of the City’s buildings including community centers.
Another idea is to extend our hours for the existing emergency shelter in City Hall and in other government-owned buildings like the King County Administration, beyond just night hours to day time shelter as well. Investments in permanent housing are the most compassionate way to help those who are struggling on our streets with mental illness, alcohol/drug addiction issues, HIV/AIDS or other significant health problems.

I suggest we provide space for new or expanded partnerships with congregations in our faith-based community and with  non-profit organizations, and private organizations interested in helping us bring people off the street into respectful shelter.

Many congregations are already doing this and are willing to share their wisdom with the Mayor’s Emergency Task Force and with other members of the faith-based community.  My goal is to expand the number of beds, and offer services people need and want:  a restroom; showers, lockers, a garbage can, a place to wash and dry their clothes, a place to plug in their cell phone.  And especially an advocate or case manager.  On the bench

In this city and region we already contract for millions of dollars of social and human services.  Connecting people with the services available is often the trick.

Those who are already offering services and shelter are willing to share what they have learned with others.  With dedicated funds, we can build on this experience.

The City can help by making resources available for expanded or creative new opportunities. Details of each situation would depend both on the organizations’ ability to offer space, what services they are willing and interested in providing, and the length of time they are willing to do it.  To encourage new ideas, the City would accept proposals and make payments based on a formula and outcomes.

I recognize we need time and space for the ideas to unfold.  My objective during this budget and into the early part of 2015 is to ask the Mayor to set aside $5 million that congregations, organizations, or service providers could access, and encourage ideas and innovations of their own.

Of course we will have challenges to address.  For example, one faith leader told me he was interested in helping move the people who regularly slept outside his church into their cafeteria, but the church deacons worried about staffing costs and increased liability or property damage.  Dealing with these concerns would take months of time and congregational energy.

Another organization told me they offer child care during the day and would want to separate homeless adults from the children during the day which would cost money and a volunteer coordinator.

One church said they have modest insurance coverage already, but felt they needed more if they brought people inside.   One possible answer is that the City’s Streets to Shelter resource fund could partially pay for staffing, and coordinate an insurance pool or provide an insurance rider.  We already have a precedent for that:  we cover volunteers who work in our parks.

The primary objective with the proposed Streets to Shelter program is to work with our friends and partners within Seattle and reach out to King County as well.  Assume between King County leaders and the City of Seattle we take our regional fair share and are dedicated to find space for 1000 more people.  If we can agree to make contact with even half of the people we know are on the streets or living in the cars, then progress will be made region-wide.  If we have set aside money for the Mayor’s Emergency Task Force on Unsheltered Homeless, we can move forward early in 2015.

HandsMembers of our police force have said this would be helpful for them as well.  Few feel good about “moving people along” with no place to direct them.  Having multiple shelter or encampment options give officers alternatives too when we ask them to enforce laws that are already in place.

This could be a win for everyone involved:  the City of Seattle takes a big bite out of our growing street homeless problem downtown and in other neighborhoods, the congregation or organization with a mission to serve receives additional resources for utilities, staffing or its capital needs, and the people who need a place to be to get back on their feet have a safe place to be within a compassionate community.

We have many good service providers under contract already.  Of course they would be part of the solution and would be encouraged to expand what they are doing already.  And I want to reach out to other organizations too to tap creative opportunities.

To my knowledge, no other city or region has approached emergency housing in this global bold way.  I am ready to try, and invite you to join me.   It’s an idea we can begin implementing before the first of the year.  And that puts us on the road to real progress.